Time brings both blessings and curses for mortal creatures such as ourselves.
While the ticking of the clock brings a host of wonderful friendships, precious family moments and memories and experiences we often treasure for a lifetime, it can also bring a sizable amount of loss, regret and grief.
Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon (The Trouble With Goats and Sheep) takes a deep dive into this mix of the good and the bad, the blessings and the curses, as we spend time with 84-year-old Florence Claybourne, who has fallen in her retirement unit at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly – while it has old people in abundance, it’s curious free of cherry trees – and is waiting for someone, anyone, to come and find her lying on the floor.
As she imagines a series of scenarios where everyone from Handy Simon, the home’s quiet, taciturn handyman who thinks more deeply than he lets on, to Cheryl the hairdresser with a painful loss to her name or Miss Ambrose, the buttoned-down administrator who expected more from life than it’s delivered finds her, and with kind assurances, spirits her off to the hospital, we relive a number of key events in the ex-factory worker’s life, both recent and far distant.
“There is a special kind of silence when you live alone. It hangs around, waiting for you to find it. You try to cover it up with all sorts of other noises, but it’s always there, at the end of everything else, expecting you.” (P. 28)
Florence, it seems, has had a life marred by more good than bad, but the bad part of the equation weighs upon her, at least when she can remember what it is that’s troubling her.
Most of the time, her memories are swirling just out of reach – Cannon does a beautiful job of capturing what it is like to not have given up on yourself or life but to find increasingly that it may have, through your failing mind and body, given up on you – and it’s up to Florence’s best friend Elsie, who she’s known since school days, to pry the information out of her.
Theirs is an especially close bond, one that has helped Florence navigate all kinds of traumatic life events and which continues to sustain her in her latter years when she is more forgetful than she’s comfortable admitting to, and when an old face from the past, a man she thought long gone from her life, reappears in the most sudden and mysterious of circumstances.
What elevates Three Things About Elsie is not just the sympathetic and insightful way it addresses the multitudinous challenges of getting older – at one point one of the characters says that, appearances aside, they feel just like they did in their early twenties and feel betrayed that their body won’t keep up with their still-youthful mind – but the way in which is examines what it’s like to have the past and the present often merge together in a messy, confusing jumble.
For all its grim honesty about passing burden of passing time, and the substantial price that must be paid for all those memories and life experiences only to have them slip from your grasp when you most need them to sustain you, Three Things About Elsie is a charming novel full of hope, promise, friendship and the heady possibility of change.
Not so much for Florence, Elsie, fellow resident Jack and the troubling Gerald Price aka Ronnie Butler, although it becomes apparent that life isn’t quite done with them yet, but for the people who keep the wheels of Cherry Tree turning such as Simon, Cheryl (who’s sweetly keen on the oblivious handyman) and Miss Ambrose, each of whom has so much ahead of them if they can just figure out what to do with it.
This mix of possible present for the younger characters and past regret for people like Florence informs much of the sparkling life of the novel, which is part existential whodunnit as Gerald’s presence brings back, slowly, a slew of long-buried memories to Florence’s consciousness, part rumination on the way human connections transform us for better and worse, and how even lives that seem diminutive on life’s stage can often have a powerful on others.
“I could see Elsie smiling at us.
‘You can’t define yourself by a single moment,’ Jack held my hand very tightly. I could feel him shaking. ‘That moment doesn’t make you who you are.’
‘Then what does?’ I said.
‘Oh, Florence. Everything else,’ he said. ‘Everything else.'” (P. 410)
There’s a lot packed into Three Things About Elsie, which draws its title from the, naturally enough, three main things Florence either values about her best friend, or which have bound them tightly together over the years:
- The first thing is she’s my best friend.
- The second is that she always knows what to say to make me feel better.
- The third thing … well, that’s the heart and soul of the book.
It’s the third aspect of Florence and Elsie’s close, lifelong friendship, which is more complex than first appearances might suggest, that provides the narrative impetus for the book which is split between Florence imagining how she will be rescued, and a slowly-building revelation of how her past and present have collided in her less than stellar. but not wholly without promise, present.
Three Things About Elsie is sweet and charming in many ways but thanks to insightful eyes, a clearly empathetic heart and a deeply-accessible understanding of the human condition, Cannon invests this sublimely-rewarding book with a muscularity that other books set in the twilight of peoples’ lives (there is even a very pithy observant comment about the use of the word “twilight” too) simply don’t possess.
Matched with a poetic soul and an ability to articulate what we’re all thinking or observing but never manage to fully express to our satisfaction – the dissection of the way people always thank others with chocolate is one example of Cannon’s talent in this regard – this amply-rewarding novel on the human condition at all stages of life is a rare joy, rich and sociable yet also darkly resonant and all too honest about the contrary realities of being alive.