I’ve been looking forward to reading “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep” for a long time. Not only did book bloggers who I follow and respect like SavidgeReads and NotesFromTheChair rate it highly, but the advance copy I was sent is covered with quotes from authors such as Rachel Joyce, Sarah Winman and James Hannah – whose books I’ve loved reading over the past couple of years. Added to this is the fact that Joanna Cannon received support in writing this, her first novel, from the WoMentoring Project (a programme that matches mentors from the publishing industry with talented new female writers) which was set up by Kerry Hudson – another author whose books I love. So a lot of build-up was attached to this novel! Part of me was nervous that this would be a book with prose so polished the story would come across as cold. However, the pleasure of reading a debut author is that you never know what the writing will be like until you get into the thick of it. Rather than something overtly showy, I was delighted to discover that “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep” is awash with the subtle delights of relatable human stories and inventive writing that is rich with emotion. At its centre is the intriguing story of a neighbourhood mystery which two intrepid adolescent girls are determined to solve.
During a relentless heat wave in the summer of 1976, a woman named Mrs Creasy goes missing from her house in the avenue of an ordinary British town. Ten year old Gracie and her delicate bespectacled friend Tilly visit the local vicar about the matter which has the neighbourhood buzzing with worry. The vicar has delivered a sermon where he quotes scripture about people being divided into those who deserve eternal punishment and those who deserve eternal life – like a shepherd who separates the goats from the sheep. What the girls correctly guess is that it’s not always so easy to tell who belongs in what group. Life is filled with lots of moral ambiguity and appearances can be deceiving: that’s the trouble. This is certainly the case in this avenue filled with characters who all harbour secrets and private lives unknown to their neighbours.
The story plays out something like a ‘whodunnit’ as the stories in each numbered house are revealed and the tangle of their connections to Mrs Creasy becomes clear. Layered on top of the story of her disappearance is a tale from a decade earlier where the neighbours united against a local outcast with disastrous consequences. A socially-awkward and mysterious man named Walter Bishop was accused of a serious crime. The courts acquitted him, but he remained guilty in the hearts of his neighbours who still scorn him. One resident puts it like this: “There are decent people,” said Mrs. Roper, “and then there are the weird ones, the ones who don’t belong. The ones who cause the rest of us problems.” This is a novel very much about belonging: from a girl who spurns her good friend in an attempt to become more popular to a family of Indian descent who move into this predominantly white neighbourhood. Even though some people find it harder to fit in (or be allowed to fit in) with others, this novel shows how everyone is equally complex and equally fearful of being cast out. Groups have a tendency to target and vilify those who are superficially unusual in an effort to hide their own hidden peculiarities or their own misdeeds.
It’s really original how this novel solidly creates in the reader’s mind a picture of a neighbourhood and the relationships between all its colourful residents. The author lays this out so clearly in the narrative that I felt like I could see a map in my mind where each house is positioned and how the inhabitants spend each day. Through short sharpened metaphors Cannon can invoke a rare feeling of understanding for another’s life. In one section she writes: “widowhood wore a beige cardigan and said very little.” This creates a powerful sense for the mixture of isolation, sadness and despondency this character feels. When Cannon hits these snippets which perfectly encapsulate a character the story really soars, but when the narrative gets too caught up in the minutiae of the neighbourhood interactions it can drag somewhat. However, what really drives the story and allows a three-dimensional understanding of the avenue are Grace and Tilly. This compelling and likeable duo trundle from neighbour to neighbour seeking clues for Mrs Creasy’s whereabouts - treated to plates of custard creams and bowls of angel delight along the way.
Grace is a strikingly precocious girl still discovering the ways her intentions don’t always meet her actions. This is eloquently described here: “I still hadn’t learned the power of words. How, once they have left your mouth, they have a breath and a life of their own. I had yet to realize that you no longer own them. I hadn’t learned that, once you have let them go, the words can then, in fact, become the owners of you.” This is a moving way of realizing how you have to take responsibility for what you say. In another part, Grace reveals herself to be a fellow bookworm from the pernickety way she organizes her shelves: “I had to run my finger down the spine of each book to check it was in its proper place and make sure they were all safe, before I could even think about doing anything else.” It’s endearing reading about Grace’s burgeoning awareness of her place in the world and the surprisingly central role she plays in this neighbourhood mystery.
Even though “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep” is a novel concentrating on a mystery set within one small neighbourhood, it stretches open to reveal many compellingly intricate stories of love and loss.
Listen to Joanna Cannon being interviewed by Simon Savidge on the You Wrote the Book podcast