The Trouble with Goats and Sheep | Joanna Cannon

The problem with hype is that you have to live up to it. And The Trouble with Goats and Sheep has certainly been hyped. A first novel, it was sold for "a high five figure sum" and has had advance publicity of the expensive sort - national newspaper advertisements, posters - as well as the usual cheaper-to-run social media campaigns. Is it justified?

Joanna Cannon is a trained doctor who now specialises in psychiatry. Her chosen specialism is the source of much of her motivation to write, as she makes clear on her website blog. "Working in psychiatry, I meet a lot of people who 'unbelong'… These are the goats. The people who just don't fit in, who aren't quite like us. It's only when something goes wrong, and society needs someone to blame, that the sheep turn to the goats and say we knew they were strange all along, and of course they must be guilty, because they just look the type, don't they?"

I have quoted this at length because I think it is key to understanding Cannon's book. This is a novel with a social and moral purpose. It's a plea for compassion for the goats, not least because, she implies, there is a little bit of the goat in all of us.

It is 1976, an extremely long, hot summer of drought. It is oppressive, as is the atmosphere of The Avenue, a non-specific but typical residential street of fairly ordinary-seeming householders. One of their number, Mrs Creasy, has gone missing. And it seems that with her disappearance has departed whatever cohesion and harmony has held the residents together. Margaret Creasy, it is alleged, knows ‘what they have done’. And their unease sparks fear, a fear that is made known in innuendo, muttered asides and clandestine conversations.

The book is narrated in a variety of ways but the key voice belongs to ten year old Grace. She and her much more appealing side-kick Tilly decide to look for God because as He is everywhere it stands to reason that they should be able to find him anywhere and, if they find Him, then Mrs Creasy will come back. Their search involves visiting and talking to their various neighbours and endless eavesdropping.

A child narrator can be a dangerous thing and for me Cannon does not always get this right. On several occasions I found myself thinking "a ten year old would simply not think/talk/act like that."

As the plot develops, Cannon introduces more mysteries and her characters reveal themselves and each other to be rather more goatish than the initial semblance of sheep suggests. The most goatish is Walter Bishop. Or perhaps that should be scapegoatish. A bit scruffier, a loner, outcast and despised, Bishop demands our sympathy but commands only the opprobrium of his self-satisfied and smug neighbours. He is different; he must be to blame, ‘because he just looks the type, doesn’t he?’

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is very well written and Joanna Cannon has a gift for striking metaphors and brief patches of effective and evocative description. There is no doubting her talent and it is no surprise that she was snapped up by The Borough Press and the book heavily promoted. But all the way through I remained slightly uneasy. The targets were too easy, the children in danger of being too twee and the moral purpose too much to the fore. For me, they remain the flaws in a book that otherwise justifies all the pre-publication hype.

A longer version of this review appears in The Star (Malaysia)