Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon

84-year-old Florence is lying on the floor of her sheltered housing flat. Her alarm hangs on the bathroom door, unreachable. As she waits to be found, she thinks about the thing she needs to tell someone, the secret she’s been keeping.

A month prior to Florence’s fall, a new resident arrives at Cherry Tree. He calls himself Gabriel Price but Florence knows he’s Ronnie Butler, a man who drowned 60 years earlier.

I have felt fear many times in my life. I feel it each time I sit alone in darkness, and dare to peel away a corner of the past. I’ve felt it over the years in an unexpected mention of his name, or a casual remark. It was strange, because until that day, it had been the absence of him which frightened me, but now he was here, standing not ten feet in front of me, I finally knew what real terror was, and there was nothing quite like it. It felt as though it could pull my heart right out of my chest.

And then things in Florence’s flat begin to move.

But no one believes Florence; she’s 84, she’s forgetful, of course. She’s also a troublemaker. She’s not interested in spending time in the day room, socialising with the others. She thinks the cleaners aren’t doing a very good job and dusts again after they’ve finished. She’s angry that the people in charge of the accommodation don’t listen to her. Miss Ambrose, the manager, places Florence on a month’s probation; if Florence doesn’t begin to participate in life at Cherry Tree, she’ll be sent to Greenbank. People don’t come back from Greenbank.

Florence enlists her friends, Elsie and Jack, to help her prove that Gabriel Price is actually Ronnie Butler. She also wants to piece together exactly what happened before he drowned; it’s time to tell her secret.

The structure of the novel moves between Florence lying on the floor – a time stated at the head of the chapter indicates how long it’s been since Florence fell – and the month leading up to this date, as Florence’s past is revealed. Other characters also have chapters from their points of view – Miss Ambrose, who has ambitions beyond working at Cherry Tree that have never been fulfilled and Handy Simon, the handyman, who relies on facts that few others are interested in. The shifts in perspective allow Cannon to create a picture of those who look after the elderly as well as the elderly themselves. It’s a stance that might make the reader question their own behaviour.

There are some beautiful and heart-breaking insights into humanity and the way we treat each other. When a resident dies and their flat is cleared out, Florence watches the collection of the skip from her window: They loaded someone’s whole life into a lorry and drove it away. There wasn’t even a mark on the pavement to say where it had been. Later, when one of the residents, Mrs Honeyman, disappears on a trip to Whitby, the police interview Florence and Elsie. They tell him that Mrs Honeyman was quiet and slept a lot.

‘I wonder if she was depressed as well,’ I said. ‘She never seems to have anyone to talk to.’

‘Really?’ The policeman looked at his notes. ‘No one else has mentioned that. Has she recently lost someone?’

‘Just the person she used to be,’ I said, but the policeman chose not to reply.

Cannon’s strength lies in her portrayals of those on the fringes of society; how many novels have an old woman telling their story in first person? Not only does the book allow Florence a voice, it looks at domestic violence and the way men use their power to intimidate women. Don’t speak out because, even if someone does seem to be listening to you, they probably won’t believe you anyway.

Three Things About Elsie is an engaging novel with an interesting protagonist and a social conscience. It will delight the many fans of Cannon’s debut The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and – deservedly – win her many more.