The twittersphere has been set a-flutter over the last few weeks with excited chatter about this intriguingly titled debut, and the praise was effusive enough to make me want to try it for myself. Reading it proved to be an immense pleasure; writing a review, on the other hand, is proving a bit trickier. The clever construction that makes it so fulfilling to read is also what makes it a challenge to write about – how do you begin to describe and dissect a book when the author has given you so many ways in? “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep” is a magic eye picture in word form: look at it from slightly different angles and you come away with different impressions.
So what was my first impression? In a word, nostalgia. The action takes place for the most part on a single street in the mid-1970s, with flashbacks to the decade before. It’s a time when life revolved around the local community: neighbours were forever in and out of one another’s houses, attended the same church, the same pub and the same local shops, and were involved in each other’s personal lives every single day. The setting reminded me so much of my own early childhood on a tight-knit street that had a community spirit much like this fictional one. I’ve never come across a place quite like it anywhere I’ve lived in my adult life – it’s easy to surmise that this kind of lifestyle simply doesn’t exist anymore – so reading this novel was like a journey back in time. The vivid sense of time and place is something the author conveys particularly well, better than in any book I’ve read for a while.
Although an incredibly authentic representation of what it was like to grow up and live in that era, the novel takes the ideal of a close and loyal community and flips it over to reveal the potentially sinister implications of living in a social group of this nature. It’s impossible not to see in the story a certain sense of affection for this much more open and companionable way of living, yet at the same time it serves almost as a warning: a group of people who are too insular and inward looking will readily turn on anyone perceived as an outsider. The outside on The Avenue is Walter Bishop, suspected by his neighbours of committing an unspeakable and highly emotive crime back in the 60s. He certainly comes across as an oddball with his lanky hair, dilapidated house and unusual manner – but is he the child-snatcher the rest of the street believes him to be? The reader doesn’t know, but what we do know is that the ongoing campaign of persecution in an attempt to drive him away is frightening in itself. What emerges as the story unfolds is that the residents of this apparently innocuous street are not simply trying to protect one another, but are also desperate to protect their own deepest secrets. The question of how far you would go in hurting someone or allowing someone to be hurt in the name of self-preservation is an uncomfortable one, but one the author tackles head on. And what happens when a lie you told years ago has got so out of hand that there’s no going back to the truth, however grim the current repercussions might be? When the book began I wasn’t expecting to ask myself any of these questions, but that’s what makes the novel so deliciously clever; reading it is like unpacking a Russian doll, gradually uncovering more and more pieces that make the whole thing more complex than it ever appeared from the outside.
In addition, the whole book is sprinkled with ever-increasing religious allusions, putting yet another spin on this morality tale. I don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling the story, but as the novel drew to a close a number of allegorical elements came to the surface that made me want to go back and read it again, but this time looking at it with this newly-planted idea in mind. In fact, it’s one of those books that would inevitably be a very different experience the second time around, and I will probably read it again, because I’m curious to see how I react to various characters knowing what I know now. The author does provide little teasers as to the reality of events all the way through, but is careful not to show her hand completely until the very last pages.
There are so many other things I could have talked about in this review: how the author uses the point of view of a child narrator to show how a naïve view of the world can also be the most effective way to see the truth, or how fantastic she is at capturing emotional experiences with some unique, elegant and surprising turns of phrase – but I would quickly run to thousands of words and lose my audience! The fact that there’s just so much to say about this novel though is a compliment in itself. I can’t wait for whatever Joanna Cannon writes next, and I sincerely hope there are many more books to come.