The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
Published by Scribner
Publication date: July 12th 2016
Genres: Childhood, Debut, Fiction, Literary
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The summer of 1976 is one of upheaval for the families who live along the Avenue, a seemingly quiet British neighborhood. Mrs. Margaret Creasy has gone missing. Ten-year-old Grace takes the words of the local vicar that “If God exists in a community, no one will be lost” as her cue to find God within their neighborhood and in doing so, bring Mrs. Creasy back. She enlists her best friend Tilly to help and uses the ruse of working for Brownie badges (despite not being in the Brownies) to gain access to everyone’s homes and, more importantly, to get the adults to talk. Her plan is just one point of entry in Joanna Cannon’s debut The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, a novel that is as deceptively unnerving as the people of the Avenue.
Cannon quickly builds a sense of unease in The Trouble with Goats with a reclusive man who may or may not have had something to do with a baby kidnapping and a home fire that kills an old woman. With every page, another anomaly and fact about Margaret Creasy’s disappearance arrives. Cannon goes from the social surface of each adult to their more hidden depths—which apparently they all shared with the kindly Mrs. Creasy. When Grace isn’t narrating, the chapters are assigned to different houses along the street where Cannon slips in clues at an even pace, keeping curiosity at the forefront.
The wives on the Avenue take the brunt of questionable behavior by acting like the Stepford wives post-breakdown—high levels of anxiety, nervous twitches, headaches, housekeeping gone awry—everything is off-kilter and only Grace and Tilly seem to notice. Grace’s own mother “spent most of 1974 having a little lie-down”. It lets the anticipation build in that twitchy way that means ‘don’t-stop-reading’. With each page more details leak out about the past and present mysteries and it becomes clear no one has been honest.
The missing Mrs. Creasy and the grown-ups’ odd behavior are just one facet of The Trouble with Goats. Cannon goes beyond the mysteries and into the deeper territory of childhood, family, and friendship. Grace is the boisterous boss in her relationship with Tilly and, at times, her blithe disregard of Tilly’s feelings is painful to read because it is so reminiscent of our own childhoods. At the same time, she herself is struggling to understand her parents’ identities, especially when her father is questioned by police
I had never heard my father like this. He was always the one asking questions, waiting for explanations. It felt strange, as though the light had shifted, and I realized I had only ever read one chapter of a story.
It won’t come as much of a surprise to learn that Cannon is a psychiatrist when she’s not writing. Her skill in this area makes The Trouble with Goats a thoughtful compendium of human behavior in all its conflicting, seamy, incomprehensible confusion. She contrasts the arbitrary nature of childhood—where questions are many, but answers are few—against the burdens of decisions made and regretted in adulthood. No one emerges unscathed.
It would be nice if The Trouble with Goats ended with every question answered and Grace able to say she found God for their community, but Cannon doesn’t shirk from sadness for the people of the Avenue. Nor does she leave young Grace with any illusions as she realizes
Sometimes, with grown-ups, the gap between your question and their answer is too big, and that always seems like the best place to put all your worrying in.
What she does do is blend the serious with an acerbic wit, making the ambiguities of life easier to handle. In the end, the Avenues is no different from any street, in any city, in any country. And that makes for rewarding reading.