Over the past few weeks, I have been reading three books by Joanna Cannon, the novels The Trouble With Goats & Sheep and Three Things About Elsie and a memoir, Breaking & Mending. Cannon is a psychiatric doctor, and her deeply compassionate novels are inspired by the lives of her patients.
Three Things About Elsie is concerned with how what at the time appear to be small, insignificant choices can have the biggest impact on our lives, and the lives of others. But it is also a wonderful exploration of what it is to be human; a fictionalised companion to Prof John Swinton’s Dementia: living in the memories of God.
Swinton speaks of three selfs that, together, shape who we are; and all three can be traced through Three Things About Elsie.
Self 1 is first-person self-awareness in the present moment. This has begun before our first birthday, and we never lose it. This is most apparent in the chapters with a time stamp for a heading. Flo, the first-person narrator, has fallen in her flat and is waiting to be discovered. Flo lives with dementia, but possesses Self 1, and over these chapters, and the course of the novel, is making peace with the present moment.
Self 2 is made up of how we think and feel about ourselves. This is most clearly explored in the chapters headed FLORENCE (first-person narrated), MISS AMBROSE and HANDY SIMON (both told by a third-person narrator), in which three characters reflect on themselves. We see the things they value, even when other people do not share the same values. We see their regrets, and how choices they made have resulted in those regrets. We see them tell themselves stories, constructed from the past, to help them in the present. We note how they compare themselves against others. We note that they (and by extension, we) are not reliable narrators, not reliable constructors of themselves, both in that they are not in full possession of the facts and in their ongoing struggle to accept themselves, to forgive and own and love themselves. Self 2 changes, many times, over the course of our lives, changing through big events (such as moving into sheltered housing, or the death of a friend) and through incremental series of small choices. We can never hold on to our Self 2, though we hoard all our previous Self 2s in the corners of the room of our lives.
Self 3 is social, various social personae, that are and can only be constructed in interaction with others. We see this in how Flo, Miss Ambrose and Handy Simon see each other, and in how each of them is impacted by interaction with a wide range of other characters, past and present. We see this in being a friend (you cannot be a friend without another), a work colleague (how you are seen, and how how you are seen can change, changing, in turn, how you see yourself), in being a vulnerable adult standing in front of a doctor or a policeman.
In the end, there are limits to Selves 2 and 3. We construct our lives, in collaboration with others, but God and nature and time and eternity conspire to save us from ourselves, to tenderly strip away our outer clothing until our Self 1 is present(ed) to us, and we are invited to make peace—or, as Swinton puts it, to make friends—with the present moment.
It is amazing how much energy we put into shaping a Self 2 to our (current) liking, and how much energy we expend on trying to control the input of others into our social Self 3; and how hard we work to push away the Self 1 that was our first self in the world, our only constant self, and the self we will be at the last.
Postscript: there is a sentence hidden in Three Things About Elsie, a landmine in a field. If you have not read The Trouble With Goats & Sheep, you won’t stand on it; but if you have, you will, and, though you keep your weight on it for as long as possible, eventually you will shift and then, only then, it will explode...