Joanna Cannon, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep: 'This’ll twitch the curtains', book review

In The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, the disappearance of a local woman, Mrs Creasy, causes a small community already suffering a heatwave almost to combust from pure nosiness.

Guy Pewsey
Sunday 28 February 2016 19:06
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How well do we know our neighbours? A friendly wave may be offered, a cup of sugar borrowed, and obligatory Christmas cards traded, but behind the double-glazing of any given street there are secrets, resentments and even crimes lurking. And sometimes all it takes for old mysteries to surface is a spark.

In The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, the disappearance of a local woman, Mrs Creasy, causes a small community already suffering a heatwave almost to combust from pure nosiness.

Her departure – perhaps of her own accord, perhaps something more sinister – leads to concerned whispers at the church, down the pub and in the library, but some neighbours do not pray for their friend’s return but rather fear that she may have worked out a secret from their collective past that could expose a close-knit group to shame.

Ignorant of such worries is Grace, a headstrong yet resourceful 10-year-old from No 4 who convinces herself and her loyal friend, Tilly, that everything might go back to normal if only they can find God.

Posing as Brownies seeking skills badges, the pair visit their neighbours’ homes in the hope of fulfilling their mission: half Agatha Christie, half Jehovah’s Witness, the girls end up exposing the hypocrisies and vices of adulthood in a quietly dramatic conclusion.

An insightful, honest book, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is the first novel from Joanna Cannon, a doctor whose psychiatric specialities are put to good use here. Each character has fascinating quirks and foibles, and their battles with guilt, distrust and horrifying past traumas are manifested masterfully.

There are many moments of complete elation and devastating grief, intensely moving emotion and nail-biting tension, and the portrayal of the forgotten complexities of childhood friendship is a warming, if slightly uncomfortable, exercise.

Like Mark Haddon in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Cannon represents the world through the eyes of a child sensitively and intelligently, and highlights the everyday absurdity of grown-ups.

In the Gospel of Matthew, God returns to divide his flock into the sheep, those who are kind and have served Him well, and the goats, who lacked compassion and faith. But such clear dichotomies are unrealistic, and Cannon presents a whole street full of complicated and realistic people whose roles as pillars of the community are called into question.

How well do we know our neighbours? Perhaps it’s best not to ask.

Dog Run Moon, by Callan Wink. Granta £12.99

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