There a special delight in having read an author’s debut novel when it first came out, then reading her follow up novel and discovering common themes and patterns which occur in fascinating variations in both books. A wonderful quality of Cannon’s writing is to create a complex picture of a community in how these networks of people both support each other and can help relieve feelings of isolation/loneliness. She describes how “There is a special kind of silence when you live alone. It hangs around, waiting for you to find it. You try to cover it up with all sorts of other noises, but it’s always there, at the end of everything else, expecting you.” But her stories show how neighbours and friends can assuage these difficult feelings.
Cannon’s debut novel “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep” portrayed a neighbourhood with an absence at its centre. A woman goes missing and two intrepid girls are determined to discover what happened to her. Conversely, in her new novel “Three Things About Elsie” the story centres around an assisted living apartment complex where a new resident arrives, but he might not be who he claims to be. Florence is convinced he’s someone from her past and she sets about trying to uncover the truth about his identity with her lifelong friend Elsie. Cannon’s sensitive narrative shows the large impact that small gestures of goodwill can have, the intricate complexities and labyrinthine nature of memory and the story is thickly drizzled with a warm coating of nostalgia.
In a way, this novel feels like the most wonderful kind of old lady drag act. I frequently find myself watching The Golden Girls and wishing I could inhabit these characters or wishing I could sit at a window staring out at a landscape while saying in a melancholy voice “It all happened so long ago…” There’s an attraction to being at a point in your life where you can remain comfortably entrenched in your belief systems and feel free to say whatever you want and not give a fig what anyone thinks. That’s not to trivialize the pitfalls and hardships which come with aging and Cannon certainly honours this struggle. There are many solemn observations about the pains of growing old: “it’s only when you get old that you realise whichever direction you choose to face, you find yourself confronted with a landscape filled up with loss.” But Florence also exhibits the wry sense of humour and stubbornness of a wizened character who many people would revel in watching and enjoy imagining themselves as. It’s a thorough delight reading about her quirky point of view. There’s also a tinge of sadness in reading about her later years as her grasp on the past and her present mind is gradually slipping away.
As with many stories that have a central mystery, this novel comes with a big twist. I could guess fairly early on what the main twist would be, but I don’t think that’s a mistake of the narrative because it only adds to the pensive mood of Florence’s condition. The chapters alternate between unravelling the suspicious aura surrounding new arrival Gabriel and counting the hours of a day when Florence has fallen down and can’t get back up. Cannon poignantly uses these two strands of the story as a way of describing the plasticity of memory and how Florence has come to reform the past in her mind: “It’s the greatest advantage of reminiscing. The past can be exactly how you wanted it to be the first time around.” The real mystery of this novel is how Florence has come to fool herself and alter her memories to suit what she needs to believe. It builds to a touching conclusion and I admire how Cannon is able to fill her stories with so many pithy observations about the human condition as well as a lot of heart.