A good-hearted book

A com­pas­sion­ate and tal­ented writer adds to the new ‘up­lit’ trend – with a touch too much sen­ti­men­tal­ity.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Culture - Re­view by MAR­TIN SPICE star2@thes­tar.com.my

JOANNA Canon is the au­thor of the Sun­day Times best­selling de­but novel The Trou­ble With Goats And Sheep (2015), which has sold over 250,000 copies in Britain alone and has been pub­lished in 15 coun­tries.

The novel was longlisted for the Des­mond El­liott Prize, short­listed for The Book­seller In­dus­try Awards 2017 and won the 2016 BAMB (Books Are My Bag) Reader Award. And barely are we into 2018 when her lat­est book, Three Things About Elsie, has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fic­tion 2018. Joanna Can­non, in short, is a very flavour­some flavour of the mo­ment, the re­cip­i­ent of large ad­vances and ful­some adu­la­tion from her many fans.

To make mat­ters worse, she seems a thor­oughly like­able and ad­mirable hu­man be­ing, hav­ing left school with just one O Level, re­turned to full time ed­u­ca­tion in her 30s, qual­i­fied as a doc­tor and then moved across into psy­chi­a­try, where she has con­tin­ued to work the wards of the men­tally dis­turbed. The Trou­ble With Goats And Sheep was loaded with pos­i­tive mes­sages and pleas for un­der­stand­ing and com­pas­sion for “the goats”, peo­ple who are not quite like the rest of us. This is all im­mensely wor­thy stuff and I gen­uinely re­spect her both for her in­ten­tions and for what she has achieved. But per­versely, per­haps even ir­ra­tionally, none of this makes me love her books.

In Three Things About Elsie, Canon takes us into an­other world of the marginalised, the el­derly. Eighty-four-year-old Flo­rence lives in Cherry Tree shel­tered ac­com­mo­da­tion where her con­stant com­pan­ion is the tit­u­lar Elsie. (There are echoes of Goats And Sheep here: an en­closed com­mu­nity, two fe­male nar­ra­tors, divi­sion and un­rest.) Flo­rence is a “dif­fi­cult” char­ac­ter, stub­born and shouty. She is fiercely in­de­pen­dent, never want­ing to join in the repet­i­tive and mind­less ac­tiv­i­ties laid on by the home ad­min­is­tra­tor, Miss Am­brose. She is also deal­ing with the on­set of de­men­tia which mud­dles her nos­tal­gic ob­ses­sion with the past and try­ing to “sort things out”.

In this she is helped by Elsie “my best friend ... al­ways knows what to say to make me feel bet­ter”. There is lit­tle doubt whose side we are on – Flo­rence is sparkly, witty, funny and per­cep­tive. Miss Am­brose is the con­ven­tional face of au­thor­ity whose only real power is the threat to send Flo­rence to the “mor­tu­ary wait­ing-room” old peo­ple’s home, Green­banks.

The bulk of the novel’s nar­ra­tion be­longs to Flo­rence, with oc­ca­sional chap­ters from Miss Am­brose and her side-kick handy­man, the slightly dys­func­tional, mildly autis­tic Si­mon.

It is no sur­prise, given her back­ground, that Canon writes per­cep­tively and with in­sight and com­pas­sion about both in­cip­i­ent de­men­tia and autism. But some­times, just some­times, I feel that the hu­mour she uses to leaven these po­ten­tially rather heavy sub­jects, borders on the pa­tro­n­is­ing. For in­stance, in a gen­er­ally very amus­ing scene, Miss Am­brose asks Si­mon to fill in a Per­sonal De­vel­op­ment Plan. Pre­dictably, he strug­gles. Asked how he mea­sures his suc­cess, he is flum­moxed. “Even his Aun­tie Jean’s dog had a rosette. He had an O-Level in wood­work and a Blue Peter badge, and he had bought the blue Peter badge from a car-boot sale.” The in­ten­tion of this scene is un­doubt­edly to mock the in­ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of man­age­ment speak; but the ef­fect is to be­lit­tle Si­mon.

Like Goats And Sheep, Three Things About Elsie has at its heart a mys­tery rooted in the past. One day Cherry Tree wel­comes a new res­i­dent, Gabriel Price. Suave and con­fi­dent de­spite his age, Gabriel seems a good ad­di­tion to the es­tab­lish­ment. Ex­cept that from the mo­ment she sees him, Flo­rence is con­vinced that he is not who he claims to be. His real name, she is cer­tain, is Ron­nie But­ler and he is a very nasty piece of work. There is only one prob­lem: Ron­nie But­ler drowned in 1953.

Who Gabriel re­ally is, what the truth is about the past and how Flo­rence and Elsie go about un­pick­ing it, is from then on the driv­ing force of the novel. It is a jour­ney of ex­plo­ration and dis­cov­ery that takes them to places, both phys­i­cal and spir­i­tual, they had long for­got­ten. As a page-turn­ing thriller, it works well. I kept go­ing long af­ter I should have been do­ing some­thing else!

Three Things About Elsie has many plea­sures, fore­most of which is the char­ac­ter of Flo­rence her­self, a de­light­fully feisty and deter­mined oc­to­ge­nar­ian. It also has its weak­nesses, in which I would in­clude Canon’s in­cli­na­tion to sen­ti­men­tal­ity and preach­i­ness. But for all that, this is a good-hearted book (a part of the new trend of “up­lit”) by a com­pas­sion­ate and tal­ented writer. As I in­ti­mated ear­lier on, I didn’t love it but I am equally sure that many, many peo­ple will. Which means you could al­ways try it and de­cide for your­self.

Three Things About Elsie Au­thor: Joanna Canon Pub­lisher: The Bor­ough Press, con­tem­po­rary fic­tion

Photo: cwa­gency.co.uk

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