The Trouble With Goats & Sheep by Joanna Cannon, Review: Charmer

Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is a quirky, mysterious and utterly charming coming-of-age debut novel about two girls set in the 1970s.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep Synopsis

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep - Joanna Cannon - Book Review

England, 1976. Mrs. Creasy is missing and the Avenue is alive with whispers. The neighbors blame her sudden disappearance on the heatwave, but ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly aren’t convinced. As the summer shimmers endlessly on, the girls decide to take matters into their own hands. Inspired by the local vicar, they go looking for God—they believe that if they find Him they might also find Mrs. Creasy and bring her home.

Spunky, spirited Grace and quiet, thoughtful Tilly go door to door in search of clues. The cul-de-sac starts to give up its secrets, and the amateur detectives uncover much more than ever imagined. As they try to make sense of what they’ve seen and heard, a complicated history of deception begins to emerge. Everyone on the Avenue has something to hide, a reason for not fitting in.

In the suffocating heat of the summer, the ability to guard these differences becomes impossible. Along with the parched lawns and the melting pavement, the lives of all the neighbors begin to unravel. What the girls don’t realize is that the lies told to conceal what happened one fateful day about a decade ago are the same ones Mrs. Creasy was beginning to peel back just before she disappeared.

(Scribner, Simon and Schuster)

One of our Top 10 International Reads of 2016

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You’ve read the lengthy synopsis for Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, so I’ll cut to the chase – this novel is a delight to read.

While an endearing young female sleuth is nothing new — think Alan Bradley’s precocious ‘Flavia de Luce‘ and the charming naivety of Mari Strachan’s ‘Gwenni Morgan‘ — narrator Grace and the loyal, but fragile Tilly are an inimitable double act.

I sat back with a Liquorice Allsort.
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people from one another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
‘Sheep again,’ said Tilly.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘They’re everywhere.’ I offered her an Allsort, but she shook her head.
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’
Tilly nudged me with her poncho. ‘Why does he hate goats so much?’

But the charm and subtle humour underpinning Grace and Tilly’s efforts to better understand the adult world, is balanced by the darker shadows cast by the avenue’s eclectic, curtain-twitching inhabitants as the 1976 heatwave bears down upon them.

It was the summer of deliverance. A summer of Space Hoppers and dancing queens, when Dolly Parton begged Jolene not to take her man, and we all stared at the surface of Mars and felt small.

Captivating writing style

I was captivated by Cannon’s writing style, her beguiling descriptors, poetic nuance and disarming insight. So many gems worthy of highlighting along the way.

On childhood popularity,

Tilly didn’t notice, but I saw them straightaway. A tribe of girls, a uniform of Suzi Quatro flicks and lip gloss, with hands stuffed into pockets, making denim wings. They stood on the opposite corner, doing nothing except being older than me. I saw them weigh out our presence as they measured the pavement with scuffed market boots and chewed gum. They were a bookmark, a page I had yet to read, and I wanted to stretch myself out to get there.

and the search for belonging that persists no matter the age or circumstance.

I always thought of Mrs Forbes as being solid and blustery, but close up, she becomes diluted. Her posture was a slight apology, the folds of her clothes measuring out the end of the story. Even her hands looked small, trapped by arthritis and livered with time.

Other than a couple of instances where I felt the adult/child divide was slightly laboured, Cannon executes Grace’s narrative viewpoint thoughtfully and consistently. A veritable feast of domestic secrets, long-buried now pushing towards daylight, it comes as no surprise to me that Cannon has secured a television dramatisation deal for The Trouble With Goats and Sheep.

I still hadn’t learned the power of words. How, once they have left your mouth, they have a breath and a life of their own. I had yet to realize that you no longer own them. I hadn’t learned that, once you have let them go, the words can then, in fact, become the owner of you.

A literary mystery, moving coming of age story and potent cautionary tale about insular societies, Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is highly recommended reading.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5  —  Overall 4.25

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Genre: Mystery, Drama, Literature

UPDATE:  Joanna has since released two more titles, the prize-nominated novel Three Things About Elsie and a powerful memoir which I recommend unreservedly Breaking & Mending.

Source: WHSmith Youtube

Related Reads:
The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan  /  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley  /  Northern Lights (Golden Compass) by Philip Pullman  /  We Ate The Road Like Vultures by Lynnette Lounsbury  /  The Origin of Me by Bernard Gallate

About the Author, Joanne Cannon

Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist with a degree from Leicester Medical School. She lives in England’s Peak District with her family and her dog. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is her first novel.

* Receiving a copy from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions above.