I expect if you haven’t already read The Trouble with Goats and sheep, then you will probably have seen plenty of reviews of it. There has been a lot of talk about Joanna Cannon’s debut novel on social media – everyone, but everyone it seems has loved it. Then, still not having read it, I went to a talk by the author at the Birmingham city centre branch of Waterstone’s. I bought two copies of the book at that event – neither of them for me – as I already had a copy on my kindle. I don’t read that many of what might be called the latest books – although I like to keep an eye on what’s out there – and there was something about this book that really appealed, child narrators, 1970’s – what’s not to love there? In 1976 I was two years younger than the child characters in this novel – so there was that lovely nostalgic element for me too. Cannon’s 1976 is definitely a place I just about remember, space hoppers, Kenneth Kendall, whimsies, angel delight, I felt really quite at home. Having seen the book in its physical hardback form – I knew it was a pretty chunky old tome – but I can report that it is a very quick read – probably as it’s hard to set aside.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep (which I kept calling sheep and goats) is set during that now infamous summer of 1976 with flashbacks to events to the winter of 1967. The place is The Avenue – a community of ordinary seeming families on an ordinary cul-de-sac in the East Midlands. On Monday June 21st 1976 Mrs Creasy one of the residents of The Avenue disappeared.
One of the main themes of this deceptively light read is that of the outsider – the goats. When people are afraid – they look for someone to blame – a likely target. At that talk by Joanna Cannon I attended she reminded us of the terrible case of Christopher Jeffries in Bristol – how we all sat watching the evening news, when his picture was shown, and cried he did it! Chris Jefferies was one of life’s goats – and he also happened to be completely innocent.
“I have known Tilly Albert for a fifth of my life. She arrived two summers ago in the back of a large, white van, and they unloaded her along with a sideboard and three easy chairs. I watched from Mrs Morton’s kitchen, whilst I ate a cheese scone and listened to a weather forecast for the Norfolk Broads. We didn’t live on the Norfolk Broads, but Mrs Morton had been there on holiday, and she liked to keep in touch. Mrs Morton was sitting with me. Will you just sit with Grace while I have a little lie-down, my mother would say, although Mrs Morton didn’t sit very much at all, she dusted and baked and looked through windows instead. My mother spent most of 1974 having a little lie-down, and so I sat with Mrs Morton quite a lot.”
Friends; ten year olds Grace and Tilly are looking ahead to the summer holidays, wondering what they will do with their time. Grace and Tilly spend a lot of time with Mrs Morton eating bowls of angel delight in which they carve their names. Tilly has been seriously ill, and despite what will become a legendary heatwave, she shields her fragile little body under a sou’wester.
“And it all became so obvious. ‘I know what we’re going to do with the summer holidays,’ I said, and got to my feet. Tilly looked up. She squinted at me and shielded her eyes from the sun. ‘What?’ ‘We’re going to make sure everyone is safe. We’re going to bring Mrs Creasy back.’ ‘How are we going to do that?’ ‘We’re going to look for God,’ I said. ‘We are?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘we are. Right here on this avenue. And I’m not giving up until we find Him.’ I held out my hand. She took it and I pulled her up next to me. ‘Okay, Gracie,’ she said. And she put her sou’wester back on and smiled.”
Mr Creasy can be seen daily wandering up and down the street, standing by the bus stop – waiting to see if his missing wife gets off the next bus. Everyone in The Avenue is speculating about her whereabouts as the long, unusually hot days continue to pass without news. As the speculation intensifies, everyone begins to look toward number eleven – where Walter Bishop lives. Memories of the events of November and December 1967 come to the surface; it must be him, why haven’t the police taken him away? As the long, unbroken summer days continue, Grace and Tilly decide to take matters into their own hands.
“When we’d sung about behaving ourselves, the vicar climbed into the pulpit and said he was going to read from the Bible. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, he said, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. I sat back with a Liquorice Allsort. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. ‘Sheep again,’ said Tilly. ‘I know,’ I said. ‘They’re everywhere.’ I offered her an Allsort, but she shook her head.”
The local vicar has told them that God is everywhere, ‘If God exists in a community, no one will be lost, – and so with the wonderful logic you only get from children – decide that if they can find God on The Avenue then they’ll definitely be able to find Margaret Creasy. Grace and Tilly busily start investigating – this involves talking to all the residents of their little cul-de-sac, they ask about Mrs Creasy and they ask about God. Grace and Tilly over hear conversations they only partly understand, and come to realise that Margaret Creasy talked to everyone too – she knew everything that went on, on The Avenue, she knew all its secrets. As it becomes very obvious that there are secrets behind every door on The Avenue – secrets that it seems Margaret Creasy knew all about.
Around half – or maybe a little more – of the novel is narrated by Grace, while the rest takes a third person subjective point of view.
“It was strange how the past often broke into the present like an intruder, dangerous and unwanted. Yet whenever the past was invited in, whenever its presence was requested, it seemed to fade into nothing, and made you wonder if it had ever really existed in the first place.”
Moving from house to house we get glimpses of the lives of the people inside, we see their frailties and gradually begin to know their secrets – the secrets they had confided to Margaret Creasy – and certainly don’t want revealed. Grace and Tilly are wonderful characters, little innocents trying to apply their child logic to the complicated, murky world of adults. Their lovely, sometimes fragile friendship is one of the best things in the book, and although I think I loved Tilly a little more – I certainly found them both very enjoyable company.
I really enjoyed The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – such a great sense of time and place, an intriguing little mystery and some really brilliant characterisation kept me reading very late into the night.