My first read of February was a book that I had been excited to read for some time. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep has generated quite a buzz on social media for many months now and on finishing Joanna Cannon’s wonderful debut novel I can quite happily say that it is more than worthy of its hype.
‘Mrs Creasy disappeared on a Monday.
I know it was a Monday, because it was the day the dustbin men came, and the avenue was filled with a smell of scraped plates’
With the heat of summer 1976 as the backdrop the events of this novel take place around The Avenue and its residents, one of whom, Margaret Creasy, has disappeared. Her absence from the cul-de-sac raises questions and concerns amongst the other residents with speculation mounting as to how and why she vanished. Amongst the curious residents is ten-year old Grace Bennett, who, along with friend Tilly Albert, decides to play detective to find out what happened to Mrs Creasy. So begins their story as they search the neighbourhood for clues, one household at a time.
“Do you not think people might be a tad suspicious, two little girls knocking on their door and asking if God is at home?”
The two girls, convinced that if they find God they will find Mrs Creasy begin to visit each household on the street to search for clues. The narrative is split between Grace’s first person narrative and the third person narrative telling the story of the various families living on The Avenue. What I loved most about this book was the idea of the secrets hidden behind every door and the way that we perceive our neighbours, making judgments on them that influence not only our own perception but that of the people around us. As the story unfolds these secrets slowly start to creep to the surface as the reader, along with Grace and Tilly, begin to piece together the events that have shaped this neighbourhood. The story set in 1976 is interspersed with a retelling of events that occurred almost a decade earlier, events which have a bearing on how the neighbours deal with Mrs Creasy’s disappearance. I found this to be perfectly paced with the gradual reveal of information making for a gripping read.
“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”
The Avenue is packed with interesting characters to meet along the way, all of whom have stories to tell. Amongst them is the outspoken Sheila Dakin, ‘Thin Brian’ and his mother, and the reclusive Walter Bishop. I really loved Cannon’s style of writing and the way she portrays these characters: Mrs Morton ‘sailed, like a vessel, along the pavement’ the vicar ‘billowed like sheets on a washing line’ and Remington the dog ‘used to be a Labrador, but he’d become so fat, it was difficult to tell’ There were countless moments in this book that made me laugh and smile. Joanna Cannon has such a wonderful way with words that I had to savour every page, sometimes re-reading lines because I loved them so much! The way the characters interact with one and other, their humorous exchanges combined with the two girls coming of age results in a charming, captivating read.
‘The world is full of goats and sheep. You just have to try and work out which is which’
I thoroughly enjoyed The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and it is no surprise that it has already found its way onto the bestseller lists. It marks the arrival of a wonderful new voice in fiction who has produced here a remarkably accomplished debut. It is gripping, fun and moving. It is a story we can relate to, with characters whose traits we can recognise in our own neighbours. Ultimately, it is story of two girls discovering what it means to belong in their community, what it means to blend in with the flock or to act alone as one of the ‘goats’. I am very sad to be leaving The Avenue and its residents behind, but I am sure their story is one which will continue to captivate readers for years to come.