This was certainly an incredibly interesting novel! It is certainly thought-provoking and gets the reader thinking about morals, forgiveness and deceit. It is bizarre because in some ways, I thought this book was incredibly accomplished…in some places however, I thought it was completely and utterly bonkers!
The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is Joanna Cannon’s debut novel and despite the 3-star rating, I think it is very impressive for a debut! It is set in Britain during the summer of 1976 which, I believe, was the hottest summer ever recorded in the UK! Obviously, for some countries, it was not that hot but for the UK’s usual standards, it was boiling. It follows a very small avenue in which live two young girls, Grace and Tilly. One of their neighbours, Mrs. Creasy, has recently gone missing and in order to entertain themselves during this summer, they decide to investigate into Mrs. Creasy’s disappearance and try to figure out what happened. By doing so, they inadvertently unravel all the other hidden dark secrets that the people of the avenue have surreptitiously kept for many years.
What they do in order to find Mrs. Creasy is the following: they talk to the local vicar who says that God divides society into people who deserve eternal punishment (“goats”) and people who deserve eternal life (“sheep”), hence the title. The girls decide that if they can discover where God is in this avenue, they can find him and he will bring everybody together again and bring Mrs. Creasy home. Initially, this was one of the things I found most interesting about the book, even not being any sort of religious person myself, but towards the end, it was one of the things I questioned the most. (To be explained later!)
The novel then continues by giving the reader a slice of the culture in this avenue, exploring the lives of all the neighbours, as well as their consciences, secrets, and certain things they want to hide and keep safe from knowledge. Tension rises in the avenue (as does the heat) when Mrs. Creasy’s disappearance threatens to bring up a past which the residents of the avenue would much prefer not being brought up. So not only does this novel have a sense of being a literary fiction, considering how it is a commentary on the culture and society in this avenue, but it also has elements of a mystery in it as more secrets are being revealed and in how the reader is constantly kept guessing throughout the book. Themes are introduced too such as love, self-realisation, conscience, guilt…all of those themes really get the reader thinking!
There were some things I really enjoyed about this book! It is an incredibly easy read – nice big font makes it fairly easy to plough through the pages – and the writing style is very cosy and British. Throughout the beginning stages of reading it, the word I was using to constantly describe how I felt about the book was “calming”. It is certainly that! This is the sort of writing style that you can slip into and become very swept up in. The main character’s personality came across perfectly in her first person narration, for example! Additionally, some scenes I thought were just brilliantly written and the writing style gave the book the air of being a terrific literary fiction. Another thing I really enjoyed was the pacing: this book is extremely slow-paced. The plot is certainly a focus in this book, considering it is partly a mystery, but the slow pace of the novel allows the book to focus on the society too and focus on a lot of detail, as many great literary fiction novels do.
Considering that this is NOT a short book (my edition being 453 pages) and considering that it was very slow-paced, I never thought at any point that it was too long. Joanna Cannon managed to keep me fairly boredom-free throughout the fairly substantial length: a very good sign!
Bizarrely, although I usually like mystery novels, the mystery elements were by no means the parts of the book I was most interested in. Yes, alright, you somewhat want to know what happened to Mrs. Creasy but that is not the part I was most interested in: I was more interested in the characters’ journeys of self-realisation throughout and how a harsh look on their morals is forcibly brought to the surface after Mrs. Creasy’s disappearance. Another thing that really captured my interest was just the slow and steadily paced look on a British society. Just reading that was relaxing and delightful enough to the point where the plot was not overly relevant to me.
(Having said all that, the plot WILL become more relevant as the book goes on: you do not really have a choice but to really pay attention to the plot towards the latter third of the book!)
In conclusion of the positive parts, this was an easy and quick read, very cosy, very British, really slow-paced and society-focused, yet also has some intriguing elements of mystery and interesting moral themes raised by that mystery.
However, I do have a few complaints which definitely prevented me from giving this book higher than three stars.
My first complaint is that, whilst I think this is a strong debut that without doubt has merits (as explained above), it still had a small element of not overly motivating me to pick the book back up when I was not reading it. I never struggled to finish it at any point (that certainly was NOT the issue): it is just that there are some books which excite me so much that I cannot wait to get to them after finishing work and diving into them. The Trouble With Goats and Sheep did not give me that sadly: I was very much enjoying it and finding it extremely immersive when I was reading it but it never left me with a hunger to finish it off as some other books have done. I am not entirely sure why this is: maybe it is not the fault of the book! Nevertheless, it was an issue I had.
The second complaint I had was with this God business. I really enjoyed how Joanna Cannon incorporated it into the first half because the girls are walking around people’s houses in the avenue in an attempt to “find God”. They assume that God is hiding somewhere in the avenue! I very much enjoyed this part of the book because I assumed that Joanna Cannon was trying to convey the message of God being a very individual thing to believe in and how, if you do believe in him, he is an all-round entity and not to be found in a specific place. I am not a religious person myself at all but these themes were still very clearly specified in the book.
This was all blown apart in the latter quarter of the book when this God situation got so beyond ridiculous it had me absolutely cackling with laughter as I was reading: almost every single character in the book starts gathering around this drainpipe suddenly ‘seeing Jesus’ in a dried splodge of creosote on the pipe. (You read that correctly!)
I can understand if this was supposed to be a humorous part of the book or something which was supposed to DISPROVE the fact that God was on the drainpipe…but then every single character claimed that they could see Him and starts telling everyone to “come and see Christ!”. This created a juxtaposition between two very different religious messages conveyed, to the point where it became very confusing. I was thinking ‘is this a comic part of the book…oh, wait, no, she’s being serious about this’!
Then, later on, she contradicts herself again by conveying a ‘God-is-everywhere’ theme once again after all this kerfuffle! So, if that was the case, how did every single character allegedly see Jesus in this dried creosote if the eventual moral was that it wasn’t Jesus after all?
As I’ve said, I am NOT a religious person by any stretch of the imagination so maybe there is a religious allegory which I am not seeing. Yet whilst the book was still enjoyable after that point, that section of the book was just a bit too bonkers for me.
There are positives about this book! It is quick, easy, brilliantly written, very slow-paced, and very literary. The complaints I have with it were the small lack of motivation I had to pick it up and the latter quarter of the book during which everything went a bit mad!
I would still recommend this if you fancy a cosy holiday read, if you enjoy literary fiction, if you enjoy books with lots of atmosphere and with elements of mystery, and/or if you enjoy books with a very slow pace. If you are a fan of one or more of the above, this would be a good book for you!