Florence Claybourne is in her eighties and lives in sheltered accommodation named Cherry Tree. One afternoon she falls and contemplates the events of the previous few weeks, and her life. Elsie is Florence’s best friend, the one who keeps her on the straight and narrow, even more important now that she has been threatened with expulsion due to her behaviour.
It was called sheltered accommodation, but I’d never quite been able to work out what we were being sheltered from. The world was still out there. It crept in through the newspapers and the television. It slid between the cracks of other people’s conversation and sang out from mobile telephones. We were the ones hidden away, collected up and ushered out of sight, and I often wondered if it was actually the world that was being sheltered from us.
In some ways this book reminds me of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, a book I found too hard to properly enjoy because reading a story about a woman with dementia when my own mother was suffering of this awful disease, meant that I made unfair comparisons with the real-life situation whereas the book was by its very nature fictional. I have a feeling that if I’d read this book at the same time, I might have drawn similar comparisons. I mention this because I firmly believe that each of us brings our own life’s experiences, our hopes and our fears with us to each book we read, and because of that our take on the story is bound to be slightly different. Fortunately I found this a charming read albeit one with a solid mystery which kept me entertained and softened the sometimes harsher intrusive thoughts about the realities of old age.
Florence is clearly in the early stages of dementia but she’s a fighter. When a man she recognises from some sixty years before turns up in the same sheltered housing complex, a man she believes died all those years ago, she’s switched on enough to try to find some proof. With the help of Elsie and the brilliantly portrayed General Jack, she finds out the man’s name is Gabriel Price although once she finally remembers, she believes he is in fact is Ronnie Butler. What significance Ronnie Butler played in Florence’s life is very gradually revealed during the time she lays on the floor of her flat, waiting for help and looking at ‘all manner of nonsense under that sideboard.’
The characters make this book, Florence and her friend Elsie are a wonderful double act with some gentle, wry humour to lift the spirits. The Manager of the care home Miss Bissell who seems to need to lie down a lot of the time, when she isn’t doing Sudoku. Miss Bissell wisely lets Miss Ambrose, one of our third person narrators, a supervisor at Cherry Tree, have the difficult conversations, even if she’s rarely allowed to make any decisions. Through Miss Ambrose’s eyes we get to see a different view of Florence. A woman who is decidedly not keen on joining in with the other residents, a woman who talks or quite often shouts to herself and someone who buys twenty three Battenberg cakes that are stacked high in the sideboard, a fact Florence staunchly denies. The other third person narrator is the adorable Handy Simon, the handyman who over the course of the book has a leap forward in terms of character development from a shy young man welded to the image of his hero fireman father to a man who begins to imagine, and realise. that there is a world outside the facts he’s been so attached to.
With the time ticking away while Florence lies on the floor, imagining who her saviour will be, the story is bought up to the present, although the truth of course is buried deep in the past.
One thing that can’t be denied is that this is a story that will imprint itself on your mind, the language is absolutely beautiful, the observations knife-sharp so although the story on the surface is seemingly gentle, has a hard kernel at the centre which made spending some time with the residents of Cherry Tree an absolute delight.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to the publishers HaperCollins UK who allowed me to read Three Things About Elsie ahead of publication on 11 January 2018, this unbiased review is my thank you to them and the hugely talented Joanna Cannon.