Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Have you noticed that recently novel writers have begun to explore the realities of old age, and especially of Alzheimer’s? In February 2015 I posted my review of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. The main character, Maud, in that novel has Alzheimer’s and is treated very respectfully by her creator, even if her misunderstandings cause some humour, mostly it is at the expense of others.

Florence Claybourne is the main character in Three Things about Elsie and she may be suffering from Alzheimer’s.  She also has a series of connected mysteries to solve about her past, involving her best friend Elsie.

Three Things about Elsie is the 35thin the series on older women in fiction. You can find a list of all those previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

Three Things about Elsie

This novel has a light touch. The plot drives it along, sometimes stretching the reader’s credulity, but none the less enjoyable.

The main character, and for most of the novel the narrator, is Flo who is 84 and lives in a sheltered flat, but she is a bit of a loner. She has never married, and was delighted when Elsie also turned up at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. The reader learns two things about Elsie very quickly: she is Flo’s best friend and she is someone who always says the right thing to her. This is important for Flo is outspoken, combative and not easily placated once she has an idea in her head. Also, she is finding it hard to remember things. The third thing about Elsie provides the narrative drive and we do not learn this third thing until near the end.

Flo and Elsie are befriended by General Jack. There is a mystery that involves them from the time when they were young women and worked together in the factory. When Ronnie Butler arrives at Cherry Trees Flo is devastated. She believed that he drowned decades before. Indeed, she believes that she killed him.

With General Jack they investigate the new arrival and begin to uncover some unpleasant events in 1953. Elsie’s sister was deliberately killed in a hit and run, by Ronnie Butler. Now going under the name of Gabriel Price, the new arrival plays mind games with Flo. She gradually recovers her memory of the events, with help from Jack and Elsie and a visit to Whitby, and these events are not at all what she thought had happened.

Florence Claybourne

The novel is framed as Flo has fallen and lies on the floor of her flat waiting for rescue. The reader’s sympathies are therefore immediately with Flo, and we are prepared for her to be mistaken about all kinds of things, including the identity of Gabriel Price.

It is hard to show diminishing mental capacities without some crazy moments, some of which can be quite frightening. One of the best scenes in the novel comes when Flo visits the doctor for an assessment of her mental state. He begins by checking her name, but then she disconcerts him by asking his. Then come the questions.

It’s strange how easily you can become flustered when someone is watching you. If they were casual questions, asked at a bus stop or in a supermarket queue, I’m sure the answers would come to us easily, but when Dr Andrews is staring down at you with his pen waiting over a piece of paper, you begin to doubt your own name. He started by asking the day of the week. Of course, I knew it was Tuesday, but going to Whitby threw me off and I plumped for Thursday …

‘Take seven away from a hundred,’ he said. ‘And keep going until I tell you to stop.’

I looked at his clipboard across the coffee table.

‘You have the answers,’ I pointed. ‘Printed at the side.’

Dr Andrews curled his arm around the sheet of paper, like a child in a classroom. ‘You shouldn’t worry about what I know,’ he said …

The last thing he did was hold up a piece of paper. It said Close Your Eyeson it.

‘Why would we want to do that?’ I said.

‘Because I’m asking you to.’ Dr Andrews held the instructions a little closer.

‘Is it a surprise?’ I said.

I heard Dr Andrews sigh. ‘Do you not usually do as someone asks?’

I frowned. ‘Not if I can help it.’ (397-8)

She may be awkward but Flo is very appreciative when treated well. For example, when Handy Simon does not patronise her but offers genuine sympathy and comfort when she needs it. And it is the strong character of Flo that appears to many of the characters in the book to be provocative and difficult: to the staff who run and clean Cherry Trees, excepting Handy Simon; the policeman who interviews her in Whitby; Dr Andrews; just about everyone.

Old women often have wisdom. One of the finest inventions of the novel is Elsie’s idea of the long second, which helps Flo remember.

It’s when you catch the clock, holding on to a second so it lasts just a fraction longer than it should. When the world gives you just a little bit more time to make the right decision. (49)

What Flo remembers about herself is important. Being 84 she has a long back-story. She is not just a forgetful old lady. She has always stood up for people, she has been generous and appreciative. And she has value in the present because she helps people find their strengths.

But if you find Florence Claybourne a little too much on the saccharine side, you could try the corrective of the previous woman in this series: Great Granny Webster. The link is here.

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon published by Borough Press in 2018. 455pp

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

Four more Good Reads

Here are four more books I have recently read and enjoyed:

  • The Meursault Investigation Kamel Daoud
  • The Good Son by Paul McVeigh
  • Wrinkles by Paco Roca
  • The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane
  1. The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

197 Mersault coverThis novel is both homage and challenge to L’Etranger by Albert Camus, through its content and it s prose. It tells the story of the Arab, killed almost in passing by Meursault, the anti-hero of Camus ‘s novel. It references L’Etranger directly from its opening to its ending, as the victim’s brother tells his story in a series of late night meetings with an admirer of Camus’s novel in a bar. This framing recalls The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, perhaps intentionally. Both place the reader within the novel.

At one level the novel is about a family’s grief, and what it means to define your life against an absent older brother. His disappearance was complete – no body was found and he was not even given a name by Camus. Daoud calls him Musa.

The Meursault Investigation is also a novel about colonial rule (of Algeria by the French) and the disappointment of Algeria since Independence. It is a story of betrayal and loss, of questioning and regrets.

At times the narrator elides Camus and Mersault, reminding us that Camus came from a French background. Other books by Camus are also referenced. He reserves particular bitterness for to the accolades given his brother’s murderer and ‘his’ book.

75 2 more CamusThe Meursault Investigation does not diminish Camus’s novel, rather provides a new perspective, and allows the reader/listener to bring Algerian experiences into the present day. (Daoud is a journalist who lives in Oran).

Annecdotalist liked much about this novel as she writes on her blog here.

Winner of several prizes including EnglishPEN award – see EnglishPEN’s World Bookshelf.

The Meursault Investigation Kamel Daoud (2014), published by Oneworld 143pp

Translated from the French by John Cullen.

  1. The Good Son by Paul McVeigh

9781784630232frcvr.inddI think this is a seriously good novel, told in a strong voice, and with plenty of tension and tenderness. The story unfolds in Belfast over the long weeks of the summer holidays, following eleven-year old Mickey Donnelly. It is the time of the Troubles. Written in the present tense, in Mickey’s voice, we are able to see the world from the perspective of a boy with much to be frightened of: big school, his brother and father, the Prods, the local bullies (girls and boys). He shows us the damaging wash of the Troubles – visits from IRA, fathers being in prison, mysterious visitors, no-go areas of the divided city – and to see the damage wrought by the culture of violence on families, children and communities.

Mickey is intelligent and not keen to be a big tough boy like his older brother. Much of the tension relates to the place he gained at the grammar school and his parents’ decision to send him to the tough local school for lack of money. He has the holidays to figure out how to survive despite the fearsome reputation of St Gabriel’s. He likes to play with Wee Maggie his younger sister and his dog Killer. He loves his Ma. His Da is a drunk and life is better without him, except that Ma loves him. His elder brother Paddy is involved with the IRA, hiding guns in the dog’s sleeping place.

During the summer holidays Mickey takes some family responsibility, learns a thing or two about growing up, and witnesses the worst of life in Belfast in the Troubles. The climax sees him deal with his drunken father and he finds himself ready for senior school.

The Good Son celebrates one boy, a misfit, and the strength of a mother’s determination to protect her family and her good son.

The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (2015), published by Salt 234pp

Shortlisted for the Guardian’s prize Not the Booker Prize (you can vote 6th October).

  1. Wrinkles by Paco Roca

197 Wrinkles coverWrinkles is a graphic novel, what the French call bandes dessinees. Following a review in The Guardian I requested a copy from the local library for research for my new book on ageing.

Wrinkles tells the story of Ernest, a retired bank manager who is increasingly disoriented and so is placed in a care home. He is befriended by his lightfingered roommate who shows him the ropes. The place none of them want to go is upstairs, according to Emile:

‘the upstairs floor is where you find the helpless. Those who can’t manage on their own anymore finish up there. Those who have lost their minds, dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s. Better to die than end up there.’ (20)

Ernest is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and in a bid to avoid an eventual move upstairs Emile encourages him to outwit the doctor’s tests and eventually Emile and Ernest make a bid for freedom, a Thelma and Louise kind of thing. But it ends badly, and the ‘big one’ marches on, until Emile is left alone and the story peters out … What endures are the strong emotions and ties between the old people.

The format lends itself to recreating sudden shifts in consciousness; for example showing Ernest’s introduction to the home as his first day at school; the interminable game of bingo, where no one can hear the number called and it has to be repeated ten times; and the stories people are telling themselves like being on a train to Istanbul, being afraid of kidnap by Martians.

Wrinkles by Paco Roca (2007), published by Knockabout 100pp.

Translated from the French by Nora Goldberg.

  1. The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

197 Wild Places coverI loved this profoundly moving, engaging and erudite tour of the wild places of Britain. Robert Macfarlane is sometimes on his own, sometimes with friends, and occasionally his experience is enlivened by chance encounters.

Structured round a series of visits to different kinds of places – island, valley, moor, forest and so on – The Wild Places follows a year’s journey, as Robert Macfarlane reflects on friendship, humans’ relationship to the earth, history, cruelty, what is known about certain animals or birds, grief, and above all a love of the wild places. He learns more about what makes them wild, and what wild means (not the absence of people’s influence, as he thought when he set out, like the untouched wildernesses of New Zealand) but a kind of ascendancy of nature’s processes: like the work of the sea on the shingle beaches of East Anglia, or the wind shaping the peaks of the mountains.

He introduces us to animals (wild hares), birds (peregrines), and people (his friend Roger Deakin who died while Macfarlane was making his journeys, but had accompanied him on one or two), as well as giving us his descriptions of landscape, presenting researched information about phenomenon, and all in an assured and erudite prose. Writing about the experiences that people have of encounters with the wild places – people brought to sudden states of awe … ‘encounters whose power to move us was beyond expression but also beyond denial’. ‘It is hard to put language to such experiences,’ (236) he explains, but reading this made me see Macfarlane’s talent with language as well as wild sleeping.

Also recommended is The Wild Ways by Robert Macfarlane which I mentioned in my very first post Reading in 2012.

And another supreme writer about the natural world appears in this book briefly and drew the map: Helen Macdonald who wrote H is for Hawk.

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane (2007), published by Granta 321pp

 

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