Book Review: Three Things About Elsie // Joanna Cannon

The past is funny place. For some of us, it’s good. For some of us, it’s bad. For some, it sits in the middle, simply bordering on whether it needs to be spoken about or not.

For Florence Claybourne, the past is an almighty landscape of confusion, betrayal and bewilderment, offset by a man called Ronnie Butler, whose menacing presence brought sorrow into the lives of Florence and those around her. Having assumed she had killed Butler after an altercation near a canal, Florence is stunned when a man by the same name registers at her care home facility – is Ronnie Butler back?

Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly is home to a small collection of elderly folk, their lives now in third gear having spent the last seventy years in overdrive. For Florence Claybourne and her best friend, Elsie, their allocation at Cherry Tree means everything – because if it’s one thing Florence has left, it’s her mind and her beloved childhood companion. Having been placed under careful supervision after hot-headed manager, Miss Bissell, notices a change in Florence’s behaviour, the strongwilled OAP is determined to keep her place at Cherry Tree and fight off any chance of being transferred to Greenbank, a fellow nursing home for the recuperation and respite of mentally challenged pensioners. Alongside Elsie, the pair start to roll back the years when a mysterious man comes to start a new life at Cherry Tree… and his name sounds familiar.

Sixty years previously, Ronnie Butler had been a young, popular and outgoing soul, living up his adolescence in the neighbourhood dance halls. Taking a liking to Elsie’s quiet and timid sister, Beryl, Ronnie takes matters into his own hands when their life as a young couple slowly begins to spiral out of control, resulting in the death of Elsie’s beloved Beryl.

Florence is slowly succumbing to what she fears most, the loss of her mind. Telling her story from the floor of her Cherry Tree flat, the narrative goes back in time to present to the reader exactly what has happened to lead the stubborn pensioner to where she is now; alone, afraid, yet strangely at peace with the idea of leaving her living state and moving on, to be with Elsie.

Joanna Cannon strikes a psychological cord in this heartwarming yet touching tale. Having trained as a hospital doctor before specialising in psychiatry, it’s evident that Cannon has used aspects of her knowledge to build the characters of Florence and Elsie, mapping their personalities into relatable, yet tragic puzzle pieces that fit into the narrative perfectly.

The novel teaches us a lesson. It’s that we are more than the biggest mistake we have made, that life is for the living, and to relish in all that we are, instead that all that we are not. Florence’s take on her own life is profound and moving – no family, no husband or children, yet she is satisfied with how her life has panned out. While she has not done a great deal with her life, she has still led a rather extraordinary one.

Cannon reflects upon the notion of dementia and what it causes, with frequent revisits to Florence’s failing memory and most of all, her imaginary relationship with Elsie, whom for the entire book has been spoken about and spoken to as though she were alive, is now revealed to be the exact opposite; passing away decades previously.

Three Things About Elsie isn’t a fundamentally sad book, it’s not likely to make you cry, but it carries a sense of heaviness and tragedy. It pulls at your heartstrings and tugs at your core, forcing you to step into Florence’s shoes and empathise with the daily sorrow and sadness she has faced for sixty years.

Friendship, love, betrayal and what it truly means to find your spritely streak is dealt with in the novel, providing a sentimental and heartwarming touch to a novel that dares to mix the past with the present, the young with the old, and the good with the bad.

Terrifically poignant, deep and moving, Three Things About Elsie is well worth the read.


Words by Paige Bradshaw

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