Monday, June 20, 2016

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Trouble with Goats & Sheep & Elmer

Reviewed by Jeanne

England is experiencing a scorching July in 1976 when Mrs. Creasy disappears.  It’s the talk of the neighborhood, but the talk is all in whispers and unease spreads like the heat.  There doesn’t seem to be any explanation. Ten year old Grace and her friend Tilly are fascinated by this turn of events, but the adults give vague answers or refuse to talk about it. Is Mrs. Creasy dead or has she run away? No one will say,  But God knows everything, Grace is told, and God is everywhere.  This gives Grace an idea of how to spend her summer holiday:  she will find God and ask Him to bring Mrs. Creasy back.
Grace and Tilly decide to visit everyone’s home in case God is there, and their visits sometimes evoke strange reactions.  There is something else going on, some secret than lingers among the neighbors.  Why does everyone shun Walter Bishop? Why did Mrs. Creasy disappear?  And just what did happen nine years ago?  
I was impressed with the writing in this debut novel from British author Joanna Cannon.  The book itself is a sort of cross between To Kill A Mockingbird and Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries.  It’s part coming of age story, part mystery, and part sociological examination.  Cannon certainly knows how to turn a phrase and some of her observations are both witty and insightful. She does an excellent job of fashioning the story using multiple points of view and occasional time shifts back to 1967 but avoiding the confusion this could have caused.  There’s a great deal of humor in the book but the reader gradually becomes aware of a dark undercurrent running through the neighborhood.  She also lightly pokes fun at British mores and prejudices of the time, including the shock when an Indian couple moves in.
Many reviewers have praised the book for its setting and atmosphere which worked well for me, though I am certain it has a much greater impact for British readers.  Cannon drops names of candies, talk show hosts, and television programs suitable for the period; I will be curious to see if those things are altered in the American edition of the book. 
The best part of the book for me was the way Cannon turns a fine phrase.  There are wonderful passages and bits of dialog that inadvertently reveal character.  Grace is a delightful creation, a sharp observer of adult behavior but also very much a child.  My only quibbles arise over certain astute observations that conflict with Grace’s naiveté—the wording is sublime but at odds with the rest of Grace’s understanding.  For example, Grace takes the vicar’s words about God being everywhere quite literally and yet can make some mature, psychologically astute observations; when a policeman asks her mother a difficult question, Grace says that she can’t see her mother’s face but she imagines it “stretched over the question like a drum.” Or, when her father is being questioned, his voice becomes small and he sounds “like someone who was trying to remember how to be valuable.” Lovely stuff, but pretty sophisticated for a ten year old peeking in sheds to look for God.
I admit I did get bogged down at times.  Grace knows all the adults by their surnames (Mr. Creasy, Mrs. Morton, etc.) but when the point of view changes to one of the adult characters they refer to one another by first names.  I sometimes had to go back to check to see who Harold or Dorothy are. Almost every character had multiple psychic burdens, many leading back to “the incident.”
I can see why the book was so well received in the UK.  Cannon is a talented writer with a gift for creative language.  The payoff is very well done, and Grace is a marvelous and memorable creation.  I am sure we will be hearing more from Ms. Cannon in the future.

Note:  The book pictured is the UK edition.  Elmer is, well, Elmer.

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