This is my review of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon.
When a middle-aged woman disappears from a suburban road, gossips fear the worst, but her neighbours are embroiled in a rising tide of panic and recrimination as they fear that a guilty secret from the past is about to be exposed. Prompted by the vicar’s sententious platitude that “if God exists in a community, no one will be lost”, bossy ten-year-old Grace and her compliant but underestimated friend Tilly pose as helpful brownies to gain access to neighbours’ homes in order to check whether or not God is there. Quite how this is going to help the situation is never made quite clear.
The story is set in the long, hot summer of 1976 which a number of writers have used as a backdrop to weird goings-on. Despite some novel if overwritten images –– “the sky was ironed into an acid blue, and even the clouds had fallen from the edges, leaving a faultless page of summer above our heads”, “the avenue…bewildered by the heat” – I grew weary of descriptions of the unrelenting drought, but this may have been the author’s intention. The focus on “contemporary accuracy” with references to Harold Wilson and his pipe, “Are you being served?”, “The Good Life”, Patsy Cline singing “Crazy”, “The Drifters” and “Angel Delight” often seems contrived.
At first, the chapters written from Alice’s viewpoint seem the strongest, until the contrast begins to jar between her childishness and some implausibly insightful comments: observing a Mrs Morton she reflects “Early widowhood had forced her to weave a life from other people’s remnants, and she had baked and minded and knitted herself into a glow of indispensability.” In order to drip-feed the reader with the details of what is really afoot in “The Avenue”, Joanna Cannon has to resort to a number of different viewpoints, all in the third person and often involving flashbacks. This often makes the storyline seem fragmented, with the highly stereotyped adults soon becoming tedious caricatures. Trite comments apart, there is a good deal of humour in the book, but the hypocrisy and prejudice of the adults is laid on with many trowels.
As the story labours its way to a surprisingly abrupt and anticlimatic ending, I was probably wrong to be irritated by a number of small errors: the “six week” school summer holiday runs from early July through to September, starting on July 5th, at least a fortnight earlier than I remember to be the case. Dahlias bloom in July alongside freesias – perhaps a quirkish effect of the heat. The persecuted Walter Bishop has several cedar trees in his front garden, something I have never seen outside a stately home. My main problem was being unable to form a clear sense of place – a mental picture of the estate, somewhere a bus ride from Nottingham. At various points, we are told about terraces and a corner shop, but houses in the Avenue have garages and sound detached. Lace-curtained windows of kitchens and “living rooms” both seem to overlook the road plus the houses seem to have “sitting rooms” as well. Here, an alcoholic single mother lives close to a property manager. The neighbours mostly seem to have known each other from childhood but are they working or middle class? You need to know this about a community in the UK. And, although some appear to have jobs, how is it that they all seem able to converge on a dramatic scene at the drop of a hat?
It’s the fantasy land of a children’s story in what purports to be an adult novel. The “genres” are all mixed up but in the end it proves to be a lightweight, by turns sad, funny, sentimental, unsubtle psychological novel. A poignant situation and any sense of real suspense are both blunted by a storyline which descends into tongue-in-cheek parody – to give it the benefit of the doubt – particularly when the neighbours gather in their deckchairs to watch over the creosote image of Jesus which has appeared on a drainpipe.