February Book Club Part 2: The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

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There were several points of comparison between this and our first book club title, The Goldfish Boy. They both dealt with a missing person case and its impact on a close-knit community, and both impart a strong message about belonging and friendship. However, my book group felt that, despite being a children’s book, The Goldfish Boy had much more subtlety, pace and intrigue than the adult bestseller The Trouble With Goats and Sheep.

Before we dive into a review of the story proper, it seems that the author would like you to know two things very much indeed. This is a novel set in the 1970s. The 70s. The nineteen seventies. The sheer number of references to Angel Delight, Wagon Wheels, mules, etc. was noted by everybody. It is also hot. We know it’s hot because we are told many times that it is hot. It’s hot. The repetition of details like this mean that the novel tends to get bogged down in unnecessary detail.

Anyway, in the midst of this 1970s heatwave, Avenue resident Mrs Creasy has vanished overnight, sparking a panic among those she leaves behind. It seems that she knows hidden secrets about all of them, and they are terrified that she has left because she intends to reveal all – particularly about one night in 1967, when the house of local misfit and suspected paedophile Walter Bishop burned down with his mother inside. Determined to solve the mystery of Mrs Creasy, and having heard from the local vicar that God is everywhere and always looks after his flock, 10-year old Grace and her friend Tilly set out to find Him in the hope that He will bring Mrs Creasy back. But the memory of 1967 has been awoken and will not go back to sleep. Although it sounds like a promising set-up, the book (at least for the first quarter or so) bumbles along at a… somewhat leisurely pace, to put it mildly, and does not appear to be going in any particular direction.

Due to this extremely slow build-up, half of my book group gave up before finishing (a colleague of mine who listened on Audible, like me, gave up three hours in). Swapping between Grace’s more childish point of view and the adult perspectives of her neighbours, the first portion of the novel sees Grace and Tilly meandering along the Avenue to visit each of their neighbours in turn in their search for God, making minor discoveries about Mrs Creasy and the rest of the community along the way and eating infinite quantities of Angel Delight (it’s the 1970s, you know). However, there is very little plot advancement for a good while and my book group members said they struggled to see where the story was going. Some of us were also confused by the various characters, who they were and how they related to one another (this problem probably wasn’t helped by the audiobook narrator, who was slightly lacking in the making-the-voices-sound-different department) – one lady even made a little character chart for herself to keep track of them all:

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I also kept forgetting where everyone lived and what story belonged to which character!

 

It’s a shame that so many of us gave up, because the plot and the book’s message did get stronger as the novel progressed, especially once Walter Bishop and his interactions with the other residents became more prominently featured and the flashbacks to 1967 intensified. I also enjoyed the development of Grace and Tilly’s relationship, and how Grace eventually learns the true value of their friendship. In fact, the exploration of each character becomes more profound and interesting as the plot quickens. There are definitely positives to be found here; Cannon’s exploration of belonging, how we treat people that don’t fit into society, guilt and denial and the meaning of loyalty delivers a strong and powerful message. I also couldn’t fail to be affected by the flashes of real humour in the writing (a particular highlight was the cringe-worthy yet funny portrayal of the residents’ reaction to the arrival of an Indian family on the Avenue). It’s just that the pace and sometimes clunky delivery really reduces its potential impact. That said, the eventual discovery of what actually happened in 1967 and the conclusion of the missing child case makes for some uncomfortable reading and more than a little soul-searching.

Cannon’s ideas and the premise of the novel theoretically makes for an excellent book. The style of writing and slow build-up, in our view, let it down.

Star Rating: 3/5

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