The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, by Joanna Cannon, is a captivating tale set in a typical English housing estate during the long, hot summer of 1976. The narrator is ten year old Grace, who is trying to find God in the hope that He will look after her friends and neighbours, one of whom has recently disappeared. Grace and her friend Tilly visit each of the houses in The Avenue, where Grace lives, questioning the residents as they check to see if God is in their house. What they discover instead is a Pandora’s Box.
This is a joyous book to read, packed full as it is with apparently throwaway comments which provide insights into the fragile binds that hold a community together. Many of the residents of The Avenue have a long, shared history and plenty that they would prefer to remain unspoken, preferably forgotten. They care about being seen to belong.
One of the neighbours, Mr Bishop, is regarded as different. When things have gone wrong in the past he has been blamed, gaining a reputation as dangerous. The accepted consensus is that he should move away; steps have been taken to try to drive him out. As far as is possible he is shunned by all, and has been for many years.
By all except the woman who has disappeared, Mrs Creasy. Prior to her leaving she had been a valued friend to almost everyone individually. The fear is that she now knows too many of their secrets. Some even hope that she may be dead.
Grace and Tilly are fabulous characters with their childish naivete and perceptiveness. They do not pick up on the adult guile, although they observe the damaging results. Many of the nuances of social etiquette are lost on them. When they feel a shift in atmosphere between adults they search out the reasons.
When the police arrive to investigate Mrs Creasy’s disappearance guilty consciences bubble to the surface. Behind every closed door in this ordinary street lurks a fear of unbelonging.
Attitudes to women, to people of colour, and to any kind of difference in the 1970s are painful to remember. It is not so much that these have changed after forty years of so called progress but they are now displayed with less forthrightness.
Grace and Tilly are curious but not yet prejudiced. The questions they ask of the adults demonstrate the rampant hypocrisy, presented here with wit and humour. Alongside, my heart ached at the childish hurt inflicted on Tilly when Grace sought out ways to be accepted by their peers.
The heat of the summer beats down on the parched street as the girls go house to house in their quest. The weeks pass and Mrs Creasey remains vanished while her neighbours’ secrets slowly unravel them.
The denouement brought to an end the heatwave and the summer, a satisfying finish that offered the obvious yet oft ignored remedy to the cancer of rejection so prevalent throughout societies.
This is not an easy book to pigeon hole. It is a compelling whodunnit, a fascinating social history and a nuanced exploration of the human psyche. It is also a deftly told tale populated by recognisable characters written with a lightness that belies the depth of the observations.
Recommended to all seeking a readable and entertaining story, this is glorious nourishment for the heart and soul.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Borough Press.
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