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The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Joanna Cannon’s first novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, is a magnificent one, and with its quirky ten year old narrator reminded me not a little of the strange eccentricities of Kate Atkinson’s first, Behind The Scenes At The Museum, for the mixture of warmth, darkness and humour

The setting is the East Midlands, and a small suburban avenue there. It is that famous, long, hot summer, and ten year old Grace, a bit of a leader, but also not quite accepted by the in-girls, and her more delicate, sensitive friend Tilly, whose weak immune system gives cause for concern, are wondering how to spend that long school holiday

The Avenue where Grace lives hides a lot of secrets behind the curtains of each house

John Creasy’s wife Margaret has gone missing, and others in the Avenue are full of dark mutterings and surmisings. Creasy is a nervous man. Margaret, it turns out, was a bit special. She was someone almost everyone confided in, and some of the neighbours may have told her much more than they feel comfortable with, in retrospect. Missing Margaret has potential power over them. Perhaps she is dead. Perhaps she has been done away with. Or not. She might be going to reveal some of the very dark secrets in many of the houses in The Avenue

He knew from experience that if something bad was going to happen, it would happen regardless of how much you tried to avoid it. Bad things find you. They seek you out. No matter how you might try to ignore them or hide away, or walk in the opposite direction. They will discover you eventually.

It’s only ever a question of time.

Grace and Tilly really liked Margaret Creasy. They liked her a lot. And so the summer holiday project comes clear. They will find Margaret Creasy. But talking to the vicar, it does seem as if they might need some help. As God, according to the vicar, is everywhere, perhaps they could find God, and God could find Mrs Creasy. They begin, surreptitiously to question their neighbours.

On Sunday, we went to church and asked God to find Mrs Creasy.

My parents didn’t ask, because they were having a lie-in, but Mrs Morton and I sat near the front so God could hear us better.

“Do you think this will work?” I whispered to her as we knelt on the slippery cushions.

Well it won’t do any harm.” she said.

I didn’t understand much of what the vicar was talking about, but he smiled at me from time to time, and I tried to look sinless and interested.

Some of the neighbours are also talking amongst themselves, and the police are also trying to find Mrs Creasy.

It seems that some of the secrets in the Avenue go back to a fateful day in 1967, and the adults, with secrets of all kinds, nervously watch each other in case anyone cracks, anyone shops anyone else. The crime fiction trope of shared responsibility ‘And Then There Were None’ echoes, in the adult conversations about 1967, whilst Grace and Tilly, firmly in 1976 are discovering there is more to almost all the adults than meets the eye, and God is proving somewhat hard to find.

I counted all the houses with my eyes, and I wondered if the vicar was right, if Mrs. Creasy had disappeared because there wasn’t enough God in the avenue. That He’d somehow missed some of us out, and left holes in people’s faith for them to fall into and vanish

Not to mention the fact that the intense world of pre-adolescent best friendships can also be a hard and heart-breaking one, foundering on casual betrayals

Cannon is brilliant in her characterisations, the twists of her fascinating plot, the absurdities and complexities of ordinary lives and her sparkling, wonderfully funny, sometimes heartbreaking observations. The real crime in suburbia is to be different. And of course, everyone always is, but attempts to wear the mask of ad-world normal.

There is a great sense of time and place, and if at times Cannon might over egg the product placement – Angel Delight! Custard Creams! Kay’s Catalogue! Penguins! Suzy Quatro hair flicks, Jimmy Young on the radio, Are You Being Served, The Good Life and The Generation Game on the telly – the egging is as welcome as a Chocolate Easter one!

And rather needed as there is a lot which is nowhere near sweetness going on, where casual attitudes to intolerance around race, class, and, well ‘different from the norm’ lead to some shocking revelations

She feels it again, the sense of a beginning, but this one is injured and fearful. This is a beginning she wants no part of. She walks home along empty pavements, carrying the weight of her shopping, past houses filled with the joined-up lives of other people, It’s the small decisions, the ones that slip themselves into your day unnoticed, the ones that wrap their weight in insignificance. These are the decisions that will bury you 

Strongly recommendedJoanna Cannon

I received this as a digital copy for review purposes, and will be keenly keeping an eye on Joanna Cannon to see what her future books will bring, after this assured start.

This has already been published in the UK, and in an ‘International Edition’ in the States, but it will be republished by Scribner in the USA, in hardback, in July

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep UK
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep USA, Scribner edition