The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon is disquieting and strange, but in a very good and clever way.
It is set in the wonderfully evoked 1976 summer and told from the point of view of ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly who decide to investigate where Mrs Creasy has gone. The two see everything on their street, The Avenue, a cul-de-sac brimming with secrets, lies and ordinary lives. Being ten, they frequently misinterpret what they see, and misunderstand the behaviour of the adults around them, while at the same time having a spot-on, clear eyed view of the little realities and cruelties (including their own) that make up life in this suburban microcosm of the world. In particular the changing role of women, and immigration to Britain, is starting to be noticed, and variously embraced and fought against.
Cannon is a psychiatrist and has written about why she wrote this book: “Working in psychiatry, I meet a lot of people who ‘unbelong’. Those who live on the periphery of life, pushed by society to the very edge of the dancefloor, where they try to copy what everyone else is doing, but never quite get it right. There is a silent herd of unbelongers out there, not just on mental health wards, but stitched through the landscape of everyone’s day, walking around supermarkets and standing in bus queues. 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 decided to write Goats and Sheep, because I believe there is a little unbelonging in all of us – it’s just that some people are better at hiding it than others… Through the eyes of Grace, our ten year-old narrator, we discover that if we scratch the surface of most sheep, we might very well find ourselves with a goat. And the biggest problem of all, is trying to work out the difference.”
This is really good writing, often funny and charming, you kind of fall for Grace and Tilly, and you fear for them. The various longings and unbelongings of The Avenue’s residents are slowly and cunningly revealed and observed with wonder and compassion. Grace and Tilly’s observations have a shadowy undercurrent, although they are not blithely naive but that odd mixture of knowing, imaginative and innocent, they are unaware of the consequences their discoveries, if revealed, might have. The frisson of unease you feel about The Avenue and its inhabitants keeps you thinking about the book when you aren’t reading it, like Grace and Tilly you need to know what is happening and why. This is is an original coming of age tale and a clever who-dunnit/why-dunnit/was-anything-dun-at-all?