My reading has been a little haphazard of late as I’m setting out as a freelance translator and am therefore working all the hours I can to establish myself. As this involves a lot of screen time my eyes have been too tired to then physically read a book for any length of time. However, I have just finished The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon. Here are 10 reasons why I absolutely loved this book:
1.The story itself: The heatwave of 1976. A small, suburban avenue community and a woman who disappears. Two ten years old girls turn amateur detective to unravel the mystery. An underlying, secret within the community waits to be revealed. Need I say more- this was bound to be my cup of tea. This book manages to be both cosy (well as cosy as you can be in a summer heatwave) and dark all in one go. Warning: this is a character driven, slow paced read – I know that its critics found it too slow but I loved the time taken to fully explore human behaviour in an ordinary, everyday context.
2.The girl detectives: Grace and Tilly are just wonderful. Their perspective is so fresh, so full of an insight only children can manage. This is a coming of age story too and these girls discover as much about themselves as they do about the people on their avenue- and I do love a coming of age story.
3. 1970s nostalgia: I absolutely loved Joanna Cannon’s attention detail. It created such fondness in my heart – I was a child of the 80s but many of the details flowed into my childhood. Having to go and turn the television on with plenty of time to let it ‘warm up’. The Generation Game. The Good Life. Planning viewing rigorously using The TV Times. Crocheted blankets. The original Sodastream. Serious studying of catalogues and paying off purchases in weekly instalments. Babysham. The importance of a local corner shop… and oh the food references- see number 4.
4. Custards Creams and Co: I think this book should come with a warning on the front. Something like:
Warning: Includes many references to 1970s sweet treats. May cause urgent need for Angel Delight, custard creams and party rings!
5. Humour: Though this is very much a book about the darker side of human nature, the lengths people will go to hide mistakes, the prejudices humans carry and the judgements they make, all this is accompanied by a lighter, subtle humour, carried by the two girls. Where there is despair and bleakness, there is also warmth and hope. A message I very much need to be reminded of as often as possible.
6. Outsiders: There is a member of the community shunned by the rest, hated even. At first Cannon lets the reader willingly believe all the information as fact but then as the story continues, she throws in questions and possibilities- what if he isn’t what he has been painted to be? I don’t want to give away the story here but you will see what I mean as you read.
The other outsiders are a new family, who move onto the avenue, they are from Birmingham and also have Indian heritage. The contrast in the reactions between the girls and the adults is brilliant. I had to remind myself that this is 1970s suburbia and a family with a different culture would have been a big deal at the time. But I know that the attitudes are sadly still present in too many people today and I think this is point Cannon so cleverly makes. Mum bakes a cake in anticipation of a new family, when she sees the colour of their skin and how the woman is dressed, she puts the cake away. Dad, when he introduces himself, talks about curry, poverty in India and he is determined to find out what it is like in their country although they are from Birmingham. A deeply conservative neighbour tells his wife that such families should ‘get used to our customs’ and how they should be thankful to the Raj for teaching them English. Another talks about ‘keeping Britain great and not letting any old Tom, Dick or Harry in’. Grace on the other hand embraces the family whole heartedly, she is accepting, genuinely welcoming, inquisitive and excited by this new experience. The world needs more Graces.
7. The similarity to An Inspector Calls: I loved studying this play by J B Priestly back at secondary school and there are certainly parallels. In a nut shell: a young woman dies and an inspector comes to interview a family known to have connections with her, each member in an individual way. Each person has a negative trait to hide, all are guilty of prejudice, judgements and lack of love for a fellow human being. Each contributed to her demise. I strongly urge you to have a read as it is another great social commentary piece.
8. The very accurate, very real observations on human behaviour: Apart from the already mentioned, there are so many further behaviours explored, some hinted at and some more detailed, all of which incredibly well written. Themes such as domestic violence, single motherhood, the onset of dementia, post-natal depression and hidden homosexuality.
9. Mental health: The third outsider is Mr Creasy; whose OCD increases each day his wife is away. His anxiety is portrayed so gently, but also very accurately. None of the neighbours can deal with this and dismiss his behaviour as odd and comment on how he needs to snap out of it. His growing isolation without his wife to support him is incredibly sad, his love for her so tender.
10. The book design: I bought the hardback from a charity shop for 99p and it is a thing of delight. Embossed title, a gorgeous blue linen, a beautifully drawn goat on the front and a sheep on the back, the inner cover with wool pattern print. Gorgeous.
So, I was just going to write a short list but I should have known nothing I write is ever short! I would love to hear if you have read this book and if so, what you thought of it.