A(nother) Review: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon #ThreeThings

I once had a conversation with someone who was absolutely furious when – in their view – someone on Twitter had spoiled a book for them, by revealing there was a twist. They hadn’t said what the twist was, just that a twist existed.


I’ve struggled with this concept ever since – I often expect there to be twists in most books I read – and finding out that one I was reading had one wouldn’t make me feel the book was spoilt. More of a teaser really.


Twists and turns are surely the components that drive the plot forward, something unexpected happening to keep the reader interested.


If I opened a book and it was utterly predictable, I knew exactly what was going to happen, would I enjoy it still? Maybe – after all, I do enjoy re-reading some books…


Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent. The reason I started talking about twists in the first place was because as something of a self-appointed expert of books, I can often see the twists coming.


The last time I was truly surprised by a twist was in I See You by Claire Mackintosh – I was so surprised, I had to put the book down for half an hour.


My difficulty is that I’m now not sure what is supposed to be a twist and what isn’t – and it is with all this preamble, that I finally come to this week’s book Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – author of the massive The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.


Florence Claybourne has a flat in the grounds of the Cherry Tree Home for the elderly, and it is in this flat and this Home that the story is set. The eponymous Elsie is Florence’s best friend and as the title suggests, there are three things you need to know about her.


We don’t learn all three things at once, but we learn them as we go through the book, as Florence becomes spooked by the arrival of a new resident, a man who should be dead. A man who died over fifty years previously.


In Florence’s corner are Elsie and another resident, Jack, but working against Elsie is – seemingly – the man himself, and Florence’s own muddled memories.


I worked out the third thing about Elsie pretty early on. So early on, in fact, that I couldn’t work out if it was meant to be an obvious ‘twist’ or not. It made me constantly question myself as this ‘third thing’ became a bigger and bigger unspoken thing among all the characters. Perhaps I was wrong? Perhaps the twist was that this obvious thing was actually not as it seemed?


I decided to stop second guessing myself. And I’m so glad I did.


In this novel, Cannon deftly weaves together multiple strands and multiple layers of story to reach a climax that will leave even the most experienced reader surprised, even if only a little it. Even if you do predict the big twist about Elsie – if in fact there actually is one – there are so many more connections both subtle and obvious that you won’t see coming, that will keep you guessing right to the end.


Three Things About Elsie is a charming novel, exploring not just aging and dementia, but also the way our lives and our actions impact on others.


The obvious comparison is to Elizabeth is Missing, but Three Things About Elsie goes further than that. You feel you know Florence’s whole life, not just the diminished later stages of it. And ultimately, it becomes a story not amount dementia, but about the way we treat others around us. The aged, the bereaved and those passing acquaintances.


Events that are important to us, secrets we keep that become huge burdens, they’re nothing to other people. But some of our smallest interactions with someone can have a lasting effect that we may never truly understand.


So while I may not see it is important if I know about a twist in a book or not, there are clearly people out there who do care. So I’m not going to tell you any of the three things about Elsie, you’ll just have to read it for yourself.


And you’ll be glad you did. In January 2018, when it’s published by Borough Press.


A(nother) Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I’m not sure whether to be offended or not.


I was recommended this book by someone (I shan’t mention her name, because she reads the blog, and it’ll annoy her that she doesn’t get a direct name-check) – on the basis that the main character reminded them of me.


In fairness, before I even read it, they clarified it was due to her strong opinions on sausage rolls and little else, still…


Eleanor Oliphant is, contrary to the title, NOT completely fine.


She is, truth be told, a little odd when we first meet her. She stays odd throughout, by the way, but we grow to love her.


We see the world through her eyes, and because the socially awkward things she does makes perfect sense to her, they make perfect sense to us.


We meet her just after she’s been to a concert, something that has happened to her completely by accident, but there she falls in love with the lead singer of the support act.


She decides, despite not having met him, that they are destined to be together, and it’s this that kick-starts her into exploring the modern world and learning how to live in it.


It’s through this exploration that we begin to learn more about Eleanor, but Eleanor also becomes more exposed to how the world works.


It seems like a really simple story, quite basic, but it’s the character of Eleanor that makes this an un-put downable, page-turning novel. It’s not about whether she meets Johnny and makes him fall in love with her, it’s about Eleanor falling in love with herself.


There are a huge number of laugh out loud moments, but there are some equally sad moments too, which is what sets this apart from other novels.


It’s the type of novel that I could recommend to anyone, there is no set genre, but the one novel I’m reminded most of is Elizabeth Is Missing not, I think, because of the content, but because of the feeling I was left with at the end.


Definitely one of the better reads of 2017

Daughter by Jane Shemilt

In the last review, I talked about an influx of books that flip between two time periods and said that I didn’t always feel the need for it.


Elizabeth Is Missing used it effectively to explore the concept of memory and put us into the mind of the main character… Daughter by Jane Shemilt uses the same technique to do the opposite.


Jenny starts the book, alone, isolated in a cottage, cut off from her family, the only communication she receives from her husband are blank postcards, a way of simply saying hello.


And then back to the past, a year previously where Jenny is surrounded by family, one daughter, twin sons and a loving husband.


Then Naomi disappears. One night, she just doesn’t come home.


The book alternates between the immediate aftermath of the disappearance, where Jenny begins to learn the secrets surround her family.


There is nothing particularly revolutionary about this story, it’s your basic mystery premise, which presents a number of suspects and possibilities and slowly whittles them down for the reader.


What it does manage to do very well is present the suspects – and part of that is down to the structure of presenting the past and the future at the same time.


There are parts where you know more than Jenny does and that puts you in a more advantaged position – and then suddenly, you’re a year in the future, and she knows more than you do.


What annoyed me was that I twigged ‘who’ it was straight away – and then forgot about them. The reason I say ‘who’ is because, from the beginning, it’s not entirely clear if Naomi has been kidnapped, or if she has run away.


I can’t really say any more than that – apart from that my gaydar is so good, I spotted a gay character on his first introduction, PAGES before it was confirmed – because I fear will give too much away, but the ending… the ending inspires debate.


I was fortunate enough to meet the author on Tuesday when she was being interviewed by Richard and Judy as part of their new Book Club. The ending divided Richard and Judy, but also my colleagues and I. Some people like it, some people don’t, some people interpret one thing from it, while others take a completely different view.


For me, what made it, was the heartbreaking realisation as the book went on that Jenny doesn’t know her family, specifically her daughter as well as she does. And, that it feels like she starts to hope that her daughter has been taken against her will rather than simply chosen to leave because that would mean her daughter isn’t a complete stranger.


It wasn’t touched on in any great detail, and was maybe just something that I read into it, but both options were as terrible the other. Do you hope that you knew your daughter really well, and that she’s now in danger, or do you hope that your life has been a lie, that you don’t know her, but she’s somewhere else, living her life.


She’s happy… without you?       

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

There are a lot of books out there that flip between the present day and the past. It’s been going on a while but is becoming more and more of a common occurrence. I shouldn’t judge, I do the same in my own book.


Why does it get used? In the case of Memories of a Murder I use it to explore a difficult family history that needs to be understood in order to fully explain why the murder happens. I sometimes wonder if I could have written it in a different way, but that is a question for a different day.


I’ve seen other books use the technique before and it doesn’t always work, sometimes it comes across as a bit of a gimmick and can be somewhat confusing as well. Some books do it well, but there’s no need to write it in that way.


My point is, Healey uses this technique and to great effect.


Elizabeth Is Missing tells the tale of Maud, an elderly widow who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. The story is told from Maud’s point of view and brilliant captures the confusion of someone who’s consciousness is slowly blurring into a sea of vague, insubstantial moments.


Like most people suffering from Alzheimer’s, Maud retains quite a vivid memory of her younger years, and she quite often retreats into these memories. That’s why the structural technique of alternating between time periods works so well in this book, because for Maud, it’s one big swirling mess. It’s all happening to her right now, or more accurately, it feels like it all just happened.


When I said on Twitter that I’d just finished reading Elizabeth Is Missing, someone asked whether they’d found her. I replied stating that that was the wrong question. It wasn’t about whether they found her, but actually whether Elizabeth was really missing at all.


The ‘disappearance’ of Elizabeth is connected only to Maud’s younger days by the disappearance of her older sister Sukie. Maud confuses the two constantly throughout the book, and we as a reader are left to assume that she is simply a confused old woman and that while something has happened to Elizabeth, it is nothing sinister. The resolution of the mystery of Elizabeth comes a little way from the end and feels – at first – kind of flat, but it ripples into something more and we finally found out what happens to Sukie


To me, the plot feels almost secondary to the journey we go on with Maud, and maybe that’s because, even though it is resolved at the end of the novel, for Maud, it will never be resolved. Before I’d even finished turning that last page, she’d likely already forgotten what happened. She thinks of her mother at one point, who never finds out what happened to Sukie, and you can’t help but feel sad that Maud will never really know either. This isn’t a disease that will get better, she’ll keep going round in circles.


And that’s what you’re left with at the end of the book, a sense of sadness not only for Maud, but also her daughter Helen. Without revealing too much, the truth comes out because Helen finally snaps, sick of her mother constantly questioning the same things over and over again. Maud will never know the truth, but she’ll never stop asking. Helen will have to live with that constant questioning – and the heartbreak of having to answer.


This brings me to my only real criticism of the book. I said that the plot feels secondary to the writing, the experiences Maud is going through. It works during the present day parts, but I found myself reading the past sequences wanting to get back to the present. The thinking of a confused, older mind, the bit of the book that’s fascinating to read, isn’t there.


It’s presented as the thoughts of a young girl – and books that do this are ten-a-penny. The sadness of Maud’s older years isn’t there, and the plot isn’t strong enough to carry the parts in the past. Maybe it’s that young Maud and old Maud don’t seem to be the same person to me. Old Maud actually seems sharper than her young counterpart, despite her Alzheimer’s, whereas Young Maud comes across as a bit simple, maybe a bit vague.


I wish Young Maud had been fleshed out a bit more, it would have helped carry the plot that little bit better, and I think would have made the ending that much more heartbreak.


Ultimately, Elizabeth Is Missing is a wonderful book, one that has the potential to make you cry, but doesn’t quite get there. I don’t give out numbers out of ten – but I will say this is probably one of the best books I’ve read this year.