Three Things About Elsie *****
by Joanna Cannon
(Borough Press, £14.99)
Florence is lying on the floor of her flat wondering when she will be found.
She is 84, living in sheltered accommodation and there is a lot on her sometimes faltering mind as she awaits rescue, in particular the secret she has held on to for years and years.
A secret from the days when she was a young woman and full of hope for her life ahead.
As she waits, she thinks about her very best friend, Elsie, the only person who remembers everything Flo is liable to forget.
“She was the only one left. The only one who would know if my mind had finally wandered away and left me to my own devices.”
Flo also casts her mind back to the dances of their youth and recalls the dance on the night Elsie’s sister, Beryl, died.
She also thinks about the frightening Ronnie Butler, the cause of Beryl’s death, who has suddenly reappeared in their lives despite the fact that he drowned in 1953 – didn’t he?
The scene is set for the unravelling of a mystery as Flo unpicks her memories and makes unforeseen connections.
But at the heart of this story is friendship and the way affection abides and endures amid the slow whiling away of ordinary, everyday life.
And the life described here is very ordinary, on the surface at least.
Joanna Cannon, whose brilliant debut The Trouble With Goats And Sheep was told from the perspective of a 10 year old, is equally perceptive on the travails of old age: slow of walking, wandering of mind, enduring the casual insensitivities of people who forget there is a person within an ageing body and an often all-conquering loneliness as death sweeps away companions and partners.
As Flo explains: “We’d packed up the past and parcelled it away, and promised ourselves we’d never speak of it again. Now we were old… and felt as though everything we went through had happened to someone else, and we had just stood and watched it all from the future.”
Cannon is funny, melancholy, acutely observant of Flo’s surroundings and wonderful at capturing the spirit of her elderly characters, from shouty Flo to kindly fellow resident Jack, from the ever-encouraging Elsie to the sinister Ronnie Butler.
She is just as adept at skewering the insecurities of the supporting characters from lost soul and handyman Handy Simon to the floundering assistant manager Miss Ambrose, their lives as stalled as those of Flo and her friends.
There is a memorable coach trip to Whitby, a distressing disappearance, an avalanche of Battenburg cake, a cascade of sheet music and three revelations, two of which will go halfway to breaking your heart: And your heart will finally crack in two on the last page.