There are three things you should know about Joanna Cannon.
1) She wrote her first novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, on breaks from her psychiatrist job and at Crazy O’Clock in the morning. Haven’t read it? Where have you been?!
2) She trained to be a doctor in her thirties whilst working in a pizza shop to support herself. Yes, not only is she a sickeningly talented writer, she is brainy AF too.
3) Having been assessed by several professionals, it was found that she did not meet the criteria to be diagnosed with Difficult Second Novel Syndrome.
That’s right, folks – Joanna has done it again. I was slightly concerned on seeing the novel’s cover, as a non-lover of Battenberg, that the marzipan-covered cake would play a central role in the book. Also, given its setting in sheltered accommodation, would the novel itself be one giant Battenberg – pretty on the outside, but sickly sweet to consume? I was wrong to have this fear. For our protagonist, Florence, and her friends Elsie and Jack, are not remotely twee, nor is the mystery in which they find themselves.
The novel begins, like Eliot’s poem, at the end. Florence has had a fall, and from her horizontal position, considers her life’s trajectory. Most of her thoughts are about her childhood: her lifelong friend, the eponymous Elsie, who always knows the right thing to say, Elsie’s Old Woman in the Shoe style family, with her numerous siblings, and the tragedy with which she has still not come to terms. Much of the novel’s humour derives from the setting, Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly, which, despite the name, has a distinct lack of fruit trees, a largely absent owner, the somewhat delicate Miss Bissell, and a typically patronising range of activities on offer (accordion afternoons, anyone?). What cuts through the potentially all-consuming sentimentality is the arrival of a figure from Florence’s past. Is he who he claims to be, or is he, in fact, the evil Ronnie Butler? Florence, Elsie and Jack make it their mission to find out, a mission which takes them geographically to Whitby, and emotionally to hell.
Three Things About Elsie took me a few pages to get into. But like an initially cool bed, once you warm up, you will cocoon yourself in its duvet and never want to leave. Just make sure you take sweet tea and fig rolls with you. (I’m still not touching Battenberg – sorry, Joanna!)