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Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Three Things About Elsie reminded me of a scene in one of my favourite episodes in Alan Bennett’s series of dramatic monologues: Talking Heads . Bennett features Doris, an elderly lady who has taken a tumble in her home while doing a little illicit dusting. Though Doris needs help she is afraid this will mean she is carted off to a residential home because she is deemed no longer able to look after herself.

Three Things About Elsie is set in one of those homes for elderly people that Doris dreads. When the book opens, one of the residents lies on the floor of her room, waiting for someone to find her. As Florence Claybourne waits, she thinks back over the previous month and the events triggered by the arrival of a new resident, a man she is convinced is someone she knew decades earlier but whom she believed was dead.

No-one in the home believes her however. Florence presents a bit of a problem for the staff at the Cherry Tree home. She hasn’t really fitted in with their thinking on how elderly people should behave. She doesn’t care for the TV programmes in the communal residents’ lounge and doesn’t enjoy the organised bingo games. Now it seems she is prone to shouting out loud and disturbing the little welcome speech Miss Ambrose, the home’s manager, likes to give new residents.

Miss Ambrose’s patience is tested with Florence begins making claims that this new resident is an imposter who sneaks into her room and moves her things about. Miss Ambrose warns her she is ‘on probation’; she has one month in which to prove she isn’t losing her mind otherwise she will find herself in Greenbank home (a much less desirable residence than Cherry Tree).

Bond of Friendship

Just as she has done throughout her life, Florence turns to her childhood friend Elsie for moral support and wisdom. They’ve been through a lot together. Elsie always knows what to do and what to say in any situation.

“I can’t imagine I how I would have coped without her all these years,” admits Florence. Now she needs her friend more than ever because she knows her mind is wandering. “It can’t help itself. It very often goes for a walk without me, and before I’ve realised what’s going on, it’s miles away,” she acknowledges.

Is Florence mistaken? Is the new resident really Gabriel Price as he claims to be or is he Ronnie Butler,  a nasty piece of work from Florence’s past (and possibly a murderer). This isn’t the only mystery in the novel. We learn two things about Elsie fairly early on in Three Things About Elsie: The first thing is that “she’s my best friend”; the second that “she always knows what to say to make me feel better”. But the third? Florence can’t quite remember that fact. It’s not until we get to the end of the novel that readers discover the missing piece of the jigsaw (though I suspect many, like myself, will have already guessed the answer).

Cannon divides the narration between Florence, Miss Ambrose the administrator and the young handyman “Handy Simon”. Miss Ambrose’s characterisation is a little predictable. She’s a busy manager who frets about budgets, bustles about organising the residents and gently ‘bossing’ them about. Simon is a loner who makes up for her lack of compassion by developing a natural ability to understand what makes old people tick.

It’s Florence who is the real star of this show. She may be 84 years old but she’s not about to be treated like a child. She’s a witty and sharp woman who has the measure of Miss Ambrose. When one of the residents speculates if the administrator has been up to some fraudulent activity, Florence responds: “Miss Ambrose doesn’t look the type, does she? … She buys all her clothes from Marks & Spencer.”

Witty, Spirited Older Woman

She’s a bit prickly but she is also vulnerable. Though she is fearful this fall will see her sent off to Greenbank, she really wants to be found. She imagines little scenarios of how she will be discovered and how her rescuers will treat her.

One of them [the ambulance team] will sit with me, as we move along the streets under the spin of a blue light. The light will turn across his face as we travel, and he will smile at me from time to time, and his hand will somehow find mine in the darkness.

Cannon cleverly prevents Three Things About Elsie becoming twee and light by interjecting darker tones when dealing with the nursing home.  The residents at Cherry Tree live under a constant threat they will be ousted from the home and despatched to Greenbank, from which it’s but a short step to death. No more seaside outings, entertainers, healthy hearts exercise sessions or bingo. At Greenbank:

…   each room was a small piece of torment. Eyes were glazed with vacancy. Mouths gaped. Limbs rested on angry, twisted sheets, although perhaps worse were the ones who lay silent in perfectly made beds, the ones who had run out of arguing.

It’s a disturbing image. One that is vastly different to all those soft focused, airbrushed pictures seen in marketing literature for such establishments. But as Florence says, there is so much pretence involved with these homes. Cherry Trees home doesn’t even have any cherry trees she points out.

It’s the kind of name you give to these places though. Woodlands, Oak Court, Pine Lodge. They’re often named after trees, for some reason. It’s the same with mental health units. Forests full of forgotten people, waiting to be found again. … It feels like you can call a thing whatever you want to, in an attempt to turn it into something else.

Joanna Cannon’s previous career as an NHS psychiatrist is evidently at work here. She captures so well the forced jollity of residential homes for elderly people where the idea seems to be that because you’re old, your intellectual faculties must be significantly depleted. I’m a long way off Florence’s age but I hope when I get there I’ll have her same spark and spirit. And I hope I’ll also have a friend like Elsie.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

46 thoughts on “Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

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  • Anonymous

    1 was Elsie killed in fire
    2 was it really Florence in car when in ran beryl over
    Read book too fast and got bit confused!!!
    Please help

    • Oh dear I don’t think I can answer that here without spoiling it for other readers

  • This sounds very worth reading, as I don’t read many novels with elderly main characters, and also it’s on the Women’s Prize longlist. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it.

    • there have been a few with elderly principals in recent years – Elizabeth is Missing is another good one

  • This book sounds great. I don’t read a lot of books starring elderly characters, but when I do, I always enjoy them. Perhaps there just aren’t enough books about elderly people? What if it was a whole genre, like YA?? That would be amazing! The quotes you shared sold me on this title, especially the one about the people no longer struggling. I also like that the main character has many sides to her. I hate one dimensional characters, but especially of elderly people. We’re all going to get old; why not be fair about what it’s like? I’m going to see if my book club wants to pick this one up next.

    • it would be a good one for book club discussion I suspect. Your comment about lack of books about elderly people got me thinking – I wonder if its because, while we all hd a childhood and thus the authors can draw upon that, they are not generally in the older age group so have to create rather than re-imagine?

      • In the States, there’s also a weird emphasis on young writers, as if not publishing a novel before 30 means you’re a failure.

        • It puts uncessary pressure on people doesn’t it – making them feel as if they are a failure before life has really begun

  • By the comments here I can see that this book hits a sore spot. My dad was in an Alzheimers facility at the end of his life. It cost the world, he hated it there, he spit on the attendants when they tried to give him a shower, they drugged him. It is a hard question. I have a friend who finds the “good” places for people to put their aging family members. I think she does a good job of it. I have female friends in their 70s and 80s who dread the day they might have to give in, lose their independence and go into a “place.” Etc,etc.

    • My gran was determined she was never going to move from her house because she didn’t want to go into anywhere where they had radiators (she loved her coal fire). Fortunately she was able to stay where she was. i’ve seen too many cases of people moving into an establishment which, no matter how well provided the care is, they become institutionalised and seem to go downhill quickly

      • This sounds great – particularly perhaps for those of us of a certain age. It reminds me a little of a Thea Astley novel, Coda, about a feisty (to use a cliche) ageing woman.

        BTW I’m perfectly prepared to move into a facility when the time comes. I’ve seen some good ones and I’d much prefer that to being isolated and alone in my house – even if family visited. They would be busy and I don’t want them to feel guilty about my care. The question of course is defining “the time”!

  • Great review, Karen. It’s definitely a book I’ve seen around, and everyone seems to really enjoy it. I was a little reluctant to pick it up, just because I’m afraid it’ll be too cheesy for me, but it seems like a great feel-good book 🙂

    • I’m ready to be the bad girl as well, maybe even sneaking in the odd tipple of gin

  • This fear-of-nursing-homes theme is becoming almost pervasive… I can’t remember ever coming across books about old age until recently and now they’re everywhere, always with the care home as the bad guy in the story, a place to be avoided or escaped from .
    I feel sorry for people who work in aged care: they are so badly paid, and they don’t even have the reward of people admiring them for the work they do (that no one else wants to do). And the media just loves a horror story of neglect or abuse that they can depict as the norm.
    Having now spent a good bit of time in aged care homes, especially with my dad who I visited every day, usually staying for a couple of hours or more, I know that the negative picture isn’t inevitable. What I mostly saw was kindness, gentleness and great patience that would put the rest of us to shame.

    • Very true that there are people who work in these establishments (including a few members of my own family) who are excellent. They’re caring and compassionate and often doing a job that is made difficult by bureaucacy. I don’t think the media – well not those here anyway – are heedlessly looking out for stories of neglect or exaggerating the situation. They’re reporting what is sadly the situation. Maybe its not as bleak in your part of the world. All I can say is that I’ve seen great examples and I’ve seen situations which make me sad and angry.

    • Agree absolutely Lisa. I’ve seen good ones too. Workers should be paid more. They are taken advantage of but in the good places they do a good job. I would rather be in a decent place than isolated at home, where I’d risk being lonely and a worry to my family

      • I can’t speak highly enough of the people who cared for my father at Arcare in Keysborough, and I’ll say nothing at all about where he was in Qld. IMO the critical difference is whether the person who loves them most can visit often enough to see that all is well, indirectly communicating to the staff that there will be questions asked if it’s not.
        But (there’s nothing very original about this opinion) the main problem is the pay. Women (mostly) do this work, and as with all the jobs staffed by women in the caring professions, their work isn’t valued until for some reason it’s done badly. It’s a terrible thing to say, but I think it will be when the Baby Boomers hit aged care, that finally something will be done about it.

        • Excellent points Lisa, the people most badly affected are those without relatives close by who can provide the necessary scrutiny and can se if something is wrong quickly.

      • Being in your own home has its advantages but I think it would also make me feel very nervous – what if someone broke in? What would I do if the power went off and I couldnt reach the trip switch etc

        • Yes, and it’s risky to climb on stools to change a lightbulb. And, it’s hard when your house needs maintenance and you have to call tradesmen and get quotes and choose one and then negotiate when things don’t work out etc etc. I saw all this with my parents – we could do a lot but there’s a limit. They (98 next month and 89 in July) moved into a retirement village last year – so not aged care/nursing home facility – but there’s onsite 24-hour on-call support, they maintain all the outside, and help with inside stuff like chasing light-bulbs, hanging pictures etc. And there’s a community centre/hall where all sorts of social activities are offered just a few minutes walk (or walker/zimmer frame) away.

        • That retirement village sounds a very good option – less stressful for them and the family

        • Yes, it is, though just the change has had its challenges. It gets hard to learn new appliances and ways of living. My late ma-in-law moved into one when she was 80. Best thing she did. Moved into low-care aged care just after she turned 96 and died on her 97th birthday with all marbles intact. Now, if I could emulate that 😀

        • Yep, that would suit me too – ideally with glass of gin and tonic in my hand!

        • Oh yes, now you’re talking… a cool Chardonnay for me, though I wouldn’t reject a g&t either.

        • I gave up chardonnay but am enjoying a lovely sauvignon blanc right at this moment

        • I can handle an SB though prefer an SSB but love wooded chardonnays.

        • Oh, here we shorten everything! It’s Semillon Sauvignon Blanc. I think the Semillon rounds out the SB.

        • No luck today in my shopping trip. Will probably have to go to a wine merchant rather than a supermarket

        • So interesting, because you’d always find a few in our liquor / supermarket chains.

        • Another reason why I need to come your way for a holiday

        • And a very good reason too … we make great wines here!

  • Great review. I so enjoyed this too. I became more and more certain I will never go into a place like Cherry Tree. The fear I suppose is not having the choice.

    • Exactly so Ali. I was looking at an advert yesterday for one of these retirement villages. Looks very nice but so costly that few people could really afford to do that

  • This looks like essential reading for me as one of my jobs is in Sheltered housing. However, if it’s anything like many people’s experiences I’ve encountered, I fear it may be a depressing read.

    • It isn’t depressing at all Sarah. So much of it is actually very funny

  • Great review and I remember you mentioning the Alan Bennett piece when I reviewed this one. I think the truisms in the author’s writing also keep this off the brink of twee, her knowledge really does shine through. Like you I hope I get to take an Elsie if the unthinkable happens.

  • I’ve been eyeing this book for a while, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing.

  • I’m pleased to hear this book isn’t twee. I haven’t been interested in reading it because every time I hear someone talking about it (on Twitter) it didn’t really sound like my kind of thing. Maybe I’ll give it a go at some point. Have you read her debut novel?

    • I never read Goats and Sheep but I do have it so will get around to is – sometime.


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