Quirky, warm and humorous are three words that will sell a book to me every time, and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon has all of those qualities in spades.
Set in an unremarkable English suburb during the heatwave of 1976, it tells the story of 10-year-old friends Grace and Tilly, who take it upon themselves to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Grace’s neighbour Mrs Creasy. Concurrently, we see events unfolding from the perspective of several adults in The Avenue, all of them heavily burdened with secrets and worries.
While Goats and Sheep is told from multiple viewpoints, the sole first-person narrative is Grace’s, making it very much her story. This child’s eye view is a particular strength of the book, which has a tremendous lightness of touch, with wry observational humour never far from the surface.
photo credit: Day 10 – Jan 10 – Allsorts via photopin (license)
First of my reasons for enjoying it is the wonderful attention to detail; Cannon creates a world jam-packed with 1970s references that will bring a smile to the face of anyone who was a kid of that era *holds one hand in the air supported by other hand, classroom-style*. Houses are decorated with Elvis clocks (‘It’s now or never’) and cough syrup-coloured carpets. There is forensic itemising of the sweets and biscuits of the era, every scene accompanied by garibaldis or liquorice Allsorts or Wagon Wheels.
Then there’s the friendship between Grace, the driving force of the two, and the more passive Tilly, whose delicate health means her mother forces her to wear a jumper and/or sou’wester at all times, despite the fact that the heat is melting the tarmac on the roads. Though they counterbalance one another perfectly (Grace looks out for Tilly, while Tilly follows Grace like a faithful dog), their relationship is stretched and tested over the course of the summer.
The soul-destroying beigeness of suburbia is also beautifully described, a world where ‘normal’ lives are protected by curtain twitching and the occasional bout of witch hunting. It’s a world where anything different is viewed with fear.
On this topic, the title derives from a particularly vivid passage of the Bible, read out by the vicar during his service one Sunday. It’s a shepherding analogy to describe how, on Judgement Day, God would separate sheep from goats, ie. good from bad. In the following passage, Grace and Tilly quiz one of their neighbours about the definition of good and bad:
‘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.’
‘Goats and sheep,’ said Tilly from across the room.
Mrs Roper frowned. ‘Well, I suppose so, if that’s the way you want to look at it.’
‘It’s the way God looks at it,’ said Tilly, and folded her arms beneath her poncho.
‘The point is, these people don’t think like the rest of us. They’re misfits, oddballs. They’re the ones the police should be talking to, not people like us. Normal people.’
One person who definitely falls outside this definition of normal, in the eyes of The Avenue’s residents, is Walter Bishop at number 11. A socially awkward recluse, he is connected with an incident which happened in 1967 and is still having repercussions.
Part coming-of-age, part-time machine, the book is also part-missing person story. What has happened to Margaret Creasy? Has she left her home and husband of her own accord or is something sinister afoot?
One of the few criticisms I’ve come across about the book is its length, and at a hefty 453 pages, it certainly isn’t something to be read in a night. But the narrative is lightly done, and Grace’s sections in particular have wonderful laugh-out-loud observations that counterbalance the pathos of the adults’ viewpoints. For my own part, I felt it was slightly overpopulated with characters – it was hard to keep track of who was living in which house, and some of the men in particular merged for me. Plus there’s a brief detour when an Indian family moves into the neighbourhood that doesn’t seem to serve much purpose other than to reiterate the narrow-mindedness of the community. But overall, while not every strand is resolved as satisfyingly as it might be, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is a charming, astute vintage slice of life, served with a generous dollop of Angel Delight.