I was fortunate to be given a signed copy of Joanna Cannon’s second book by friends for my birthday back in January. (Her first book, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, is on the list of books I want to read, but I haven’t managed it yet.) My book club picked this for our most recent read, and we all loved it! It’s the best thing I’ve read in ages, the most human, the most touching and the most interesting and unusual plot. It’s beautifully written, the dialogue and characters are authentic and wholly recognisable and it’s an engaging and compelling read.
The central character of the novel is Florence Claybourne, elderly resident at the Cherry Tree sheltered housing development. Each of the residents has their own apartment, but the block is warden-controlled by Miss Bissell and Miss Ambrose, and there is a Day Room where communal activities are held. Some of the residents are frailer than others and there is the sense that this is the feeder facility for the local residential care home, Greenbank. The eponymous Elsie is Florence’s best friend, that’s the first ‘thing’ about Elsie; they have known each other since they were at school. The second ‘thing’ is that Elsie ‘always knows what to say to make me feel better’; Elsie always sounds a note of calm and reassurance whenever Florence becomes tense or upset, as she does frequently when the events of the novel unfold. Elsie and Florence are constant companions.
In the opening chapter of the novel, entitled ‘4.48pm’ we meet Florence lying on the floor in her apartment. She has had a fall and finds she is unable to reach her emergency cord, wondering who will find her and when. Florence’s abandonment on the floor proceeds almost in real time (at the end of the novel it is 11.12pm and she has still not been discovered, don’t worry that’s not a spoiler!) and whilst she is lying there she has flashbacks about recent events at Cherry Tree and the connection with her past life and her relationship with Elsie. It is through these flashbacks that the story of the novel unfolds. It’s a clever structure and works very well.
Life at Cherry Tree was predictable and dull until the arrival of a new resident. Florence immediately recognises him as a figure from her and Elsie’s past, a former boyfriend of Elsie’s sister Beryl, who appears to have had an abusive relationship with her and was somehow connected with Beryl’s mysterious death, though nothing was ever proved. Florence is convinced this new resident is Beryl’s former lover, Ronnie Butler, but unfortunately, this resident is called Gabriel Price and Ronnie’s body was allegedly found in the canal a little after Beryl’s death. Florence manages to convince Elsie and another friend and fellow resident, Jack, that Gabriel is Ronnie and has some sinister intent in seeking them out after all these years. Certain odd things start happening, such as items in Florence’s flat being moved, the sudden appearance in her kitchen of a cupboard full of Battenburg cakes, and a fire averted in Florence’s flat after an iron was left on while she was out. These events set Florence up against Miss Ambrose, Cherry Tree’s manager, who has been charmed by the amiable and charismatic Mr Price, and who already finds Florence rebellious and truculent, and now feels she may be declining into dementia. She puts Florence ‘on probation’, warning her that if her behaviour continues in this vein she will have no choice but to send her to the dreaded Greenbank.
The rest of the novel is about Florence, Jack and Elsie’s quest to uncover the truth about Gabriel Price and his involvement with Elsie’s family, and particularly the circumstances of Beryl’s death. It is at times laugh out loud, as the intrepid trio grapple with the challenges of old age, but it is always poignant. It is a moving and sobering tale about how often elderly people in our society are lonely and disempowered, shuffled off to care homes to await the end of their lives, and not always with respect.
“’How can you talk to somebody when even their eyes aren’t listening.’”
Florence and her friends reflect on the futility of possessions as you approach the end of life, and the greater importance of love and relationships. It is not just in old age that this happens, however; some of the employees at Cherry Tree lead equally unsatisfying lives without meaningful human connection.
As the book progresses, the Ronnie Butler/Gabriel Price mystery unfolds and we learn more about Florence and Elsie and Jack, about Handy Simon, Cherry Tree’s resident maintenance man, Miss Ambrose, and the events of their earlier lives. There is a stunning denouement at the end, when we find out the third thing about Elsie, which I absolutely did not see coming! The book is wonderful as an observation of old age, and that alone would have been enough, but coupled with a sophisticated and brilliantly worked plot it is a tour de force, truly a novel for our time.
There are some really powerful and moving observations in this book, beautifully expressed in some wonderful passages – I wish I could quote them all. So, unusually, I’ll end with some extracts that I hope will give you a flavour of the novel.
I recommend this book highly.
Florence reflects on the death of a fellow Cherry Tree resident:
“The skip was filled with her life – Brenda’s, or Barbara’s, or perhaps Betty’s. There were ornaments she had loved and paintings she had chosen. Books she’d read, or would never finish; photographs that had smashed from their frames as they’d hit against the metal. Photographs she had dusted and cared for, of people who were clearly no longer here to claim themselves from the debris. It was so quickly disposed of, so easily dismantled. A small existence, disappeared. There was nothing left to say she’d ever been there.”
“When your days are small, routine is the only scaffolding that holds you together.”
Florence reflects on the changes to the high street:
“’And every other shop is a hairdressers. I never realised people had so much hair.’”
Florence on the swift passage of time:
“’You always think “one day”, don’t you, and then you realise you’ve reached the point when you’ve run out of them.’”
“It’s only when you get old that you realise whichever direction you choose to face, you find yourself confronted with a landscape filled up with loss.”
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