Joanna Cannon’s debut novel, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, was only published in late January and is already being touted by some as one of the books of the year. For me, however, this is a solid three-star read rather than a five-star favourite. But I would still recommend this novel wholeheartedly.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is set on the Avenue during the long, hot summer of 1976. The stars of the novel are a brace of lovable ten year olds (Tilly and Grace) and Joanna Cannon’s writing, which manages to be comic and piercingly insightful at the same time:
My mother said I was at an awkward age. I didn’t feel especially awkward, so I presumed she meant that it was awkward for them.
When their neighbour Mrs Creasy goes missing, Tilly and Grace devote their summer holidays to finding her – and to finding God. As their search gathers pace, the novel flits from Grace’s first-person narrative to viewing events from her adult neighbours’ perspectives. It thus becomes clear that the grown ups, including Grace’s parents, are harbouring secrets far beyond Tilly and Grace’s understanding. The security and certainties of childhood are about to be challenged:
Even the avenue had changed. Giant fissures opened on yellowed lawns and paths felt soft and unsteady. Things which had been solid and reliable were now pliant and uncertain. Nothing felt sure any more.
There is a whiff of To Kill a Mockingbird about this novel, and not just because of the child narrator. The central theme of the book is the treatment of outsiders, with outsiders being the goats of the title and the rest of society being the sheep. This theme isn’t dealt with in great depth, though, and I never felt that the children’s perspectives shifted enough for this to be considered the coming-of-age novel it promised to be. Grace and Tilly are, of course, slightly too whimsical and knowing to be wholly convincing as characters but they make up for this with their sheer charm. Their friendship is also depicted very touchingly. The plot doesn’t have a great deal of momentum but it ticks along quite nicely. There are no real revelations, however, and the ending does have a slight ‘is that it?’ quality.
This is a beautifully written, charming and entertaining novel that is well worth reading. For me, though, it doesn’t quite have the substance or the originality to be considered the modern classic it is being billed as in some corners.