Wednesday 25 April 2018

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon

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Cannon’s debut turns a magnifying glass on the residents of the Avenue after one of their number, Mrs. Creasy, goes missing. Ten year old Grace and her friend Tilly decide they will investigate and believe that if they can find God, Mrs. Creasy will come back. The Avenue is a close knit community except for the occupant of number eleven, who is ostracized by the others and blamed for anything that goes wrong. It soon becomes apparent that the street holds a collective secret as well as numerous individual ones.

Flipping between 1976 and 1967 the reader is led to suspect and then given tantalizing glimpses of the origin of the secret, often without giving full answers. Walter Bishop and the fire at his in which his mother perished is at the heart of the residents’ collective guilt. We are never shown Walter doing any of the terrible things he is accused of however. It’s an interesting study into how an outsider can be unfairly held up as a villain and tormented by his nosy neighbours whose distrust of him is swept up in a communal, ignorant judgment.

We see the stress of the residents rise at the thought of Mrs. Creasy’s return when they consider how much she knew about each of them. The street becomes claustrophobic, constantly watching each other, and a need to toe the accepted line becomes apparent. There’s an interesting host of characters – Dorothy and Harold Forbes whose conversation is always dominated by Harold and his belief that his wife talks nonsense, convincing her that she is suffering early onset dementia; John Creasy with his escalating OCD after Mrs. Creasy leaves; ‘thin Brian’ who is stuck living with his overbearing mother; Mrs. Morton, whose widowhood left her feeling humiliated due to the circumstances of her husband’s death; Eric Lamb, a kindly widower who tends to his garden with great care; and Grace’s own parents, unhappy in marriage, her mother seemingly unable to cope with motherhood. Tilly’s mother never makes an appearance but it is clear the others don’t think much of her. Grace is shown to be more perceptive than many of the adults but also shows her young age in her interactions with Tilly and desire to impress the slightly older Lisa.

This is a gentle whodunit that leaves much unresolved as if we’ve just dropped in on the characters for a little while but leave before all the drama has unfolded. At times a little far fetched (their obsession with a creosote stain resembling Jesus seemed a step too far) but otherwise a touching story with believable characters. 

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