The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

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The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is an intriguing and unusual story of hypocrisy, guilt, judgement and forgiveness, set in an avenue on a small housing estate in the middle of England – in Nottingham I think.

The narrator of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep can pop in and out of the houses in the avenue at will, and into the minds of most of the residents, but principally we see this suburban world through the eyes and ears of two small children, Grace and Tilly.  They offer an innocent and naive perspective on this little England, and the sections concerning their escapades are told with wit and charm.

Early in the novel the children attend the local church, where they are told that God is everywhere, and that for Him the world consists of goats and sheep.  So they set off to search for God, seeking him in the different houses and on the avenue itself.  This in itself is an amusing and lighthearted conceit that offers a moral perspective to the story without being at all didactic.

The narrative thread concerning the children’s search for God runs in conjunction with a second concerning the night of a fire several years earlier. There are flashbacks between two eras – the night of the fire in 1967, and the present of the novel in the hot summer of 1976.

During the house fire an old lady died.  Her son survived, but has been an outcast ever since.  There are hints that some of the residents of the avenue were involved in some way with the fire, and that others know the secrets of that night.  Some have feelings of guilt, whilst others merely remain judgemental and self justifying.

When a woman from The Avenue goes missing, and the police arrive, memories are stirred and we are able to see how each person deals with events they have consciously hidden in their past.  As their guilty secrets return to haunt them, some become worried that the police will investigate

Much of the book deals with a slow reveal about the state of affairs in The Avenue. We are introduced to interesting characters, each with their own burden to bear.  There is a real sense of compassion and humanity in this book, which interestingly was written by a psychiatrist.  Well she would know about guilt wouldn’t she?

As the story progresses, a patch of creosote leeches out of the whitewashed wall of a local garage forming an image of Jesus.  This exciting and unexpected event brings the characters of the book together.  Here they sit in deckchairs eating Quality Street and chatting, whilst we learn more about their lives, and feel quietly urged to consider the nature of guilt, judgement and forgiveness.  The writer makes no explicit comments about these issues, but shows us the hypocrisies and dishonesty, the lack of courage and the prejudice that have led to this situation.  It is the clever use of the image of Christ that brings this theme most clearly to the reader’s attention.

Throughout, the writing in this book is simple and plain, but the writer does have a facility with words, and uses the simple language of child’s point of view especially well.  So a cat padded along with careful paws before it  folded itself  into a hedge.  She also has a fine insight into the mind and vanities of her characters, whether an eleven year old child, or her grandmotherly ward.

If the issue of human frailty is of interest to you, I would recommend this book.  At the beginning there is a little map of the housing estate – the avenue – showing the names of the characters residing at each house, and you will find this helpful if, like me, you have a terrible memory for names.

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