HIghly recommend...a humorous meditation on who's running the government when we're not looking (or we trust those in charge too much). What IF our secret agents are taking their cues from conspiracy theorists, spy novels, and new age gurus? What if the next war won't be fought with planes and tanks, but sound and hypnosis? And what do a group of lame goats have to do with all of this? Find out in Ronson's hilarious, yet deeply disturbing book, which, alas, is non-fiction (!)
It's ironic that after I made the post about not finding enough time to post twice a week I exponentially increased how many books I was reading. This has resulted in a backlog of books which show as 'currently reading' on all of my literary social media sites. This has generally meant that the reviews which have been going up on Fridays are following in the order that I read them but I may have read them as much as two months ago. I'm going to change that up with this post because I'm just so excited to talk about this book that it's jumping the queue. Strap in, guys.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon was brought to my attention by watching this video by one of my favorite BookTubers, Mercedes. It was the cover that initially grabbed my attention (Honestly, are you even surprised anymore?) but it was the quick blurb which she read that truly won me over. (PS The UK and US covers are vastly different and honestly I prefer the cover from the UK.) Cannon's debut novel is set on a small road in England during the summer of 1976 and the winter of 1967. Two seemingly disparate events from these two time periods seem to be converging during what turns out to be one of the hottest summers on record. The reader follows several narrative threads from the inhabitants of this road but the central character is 10-year old Grace. We see her neighbors, family, and friend (Tilly is a delight) through her eyes while also getting to peek behind the shuttered windows and closed doors of their homes where secrets lurk in every corner. It started with a disappearance of a woman...or was it a baby? Maybe it was a fire that started things. It's sometimes difficult to determine just what started a chain of events, isn't it? The Trouble with Goats and Sheep explores that and much more. I don't want this novel to sound distressingly gloomy or dark because that's not accurate. It's difficult for me to convey just what it was that instantly drew me in and had me savoring it like a delicious treat. I think it's that Cannon was able to move seamlessly between the different characters and two time periods and create a story that was both believable and poignant. The people on the avenue felt real and tangible. Their foibles and fears weren't inconceivable or written with a melodramatic air. These were real people who had made mistakes but were too stubborn to admit them. It's a study of humanity and how two little girls tried to reconcile what they were seeing with what they desperately wanted to believe. I knew within 30 pages that this was a book that this was going to have high re-readability for me and I daresay for many others as well. 10/10 highly recommend.
The UK cover:
The US cover:
I really loved the voice of the author in this book, she had a wonderfully quirky view on life and I highlighted a number of phrases and observations that appealed to me.
The book also rang a memory bell, set in a Britain that I clearly remember from my childhood, during the endless hot summer of 1976.
The characters are all residents of The Avenue, part of an estate somewhere in England. Many have known each other from childhood and grown up together, a few are 'incomers'. They encompass a number of quirks that would be labelled in modern day societies, but at that time, Dyslexia, Asperger's and similar personality or learning disorders, were just accepted as different. The significant question was - how much different, and could you still fit in?
Whilst there as a bit of a who-done-it, running through the narrative, the main theme was the disappearance of Margaret Creasey, who has vanished as the story begins. The residents thought they knew why she'd left and were worried that it might bring up long-buried secrets.
Ten-year-old Grace and her friend Tilly, decide they are going to spend their summer vacation searching The Avenue for God as he would surely know where Mrs Creasey was.
It really took me back, how conversation took place over a cup of tea and a packet of Custard Creams....and Angel Delight! I remember my mother discovering Angel Delight, it replaced Bird's Custard as 'afters' for quite a while!
And I have to include just a few of the lovely quotes that I'd highlighted:
"She has to call several times because his dreams are like cement." (Loc 618)
"I still hadn't learned the power of words. How, once they have left your mouth, they have a breath and life of their own." (Loc 2887)
"My mother looked at him and did loud staring" (Loc 3316).
"My mother cornered her eyes" (Loc 3330)
So, why didn't I give this book the full five stars? Well, I actually had a problem equating some of the things Grace and Tilly say with their age of ten, they seemed older than their years a lot of the time. Plus there is a slight lack of resolution at the end - why did Walter suddenly enter the conversation uninvited and what happened about the secrets that everyone was so scared of revealing?
Still, it's a brilliant read, especially if you were old enough to remember that summer.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon, author; Paula Wilcox, narrator
In the summer of 1976, the result of what I will call groupthink* came to roost in a quiet English neighborhood. Most of the action takes place on The Avenue, a street in a quiet community in England where homogeneity is the ultimate goal of all of the residents. It is a more innocent time, in this small, tight knit neighborhood of simple people who lack sophistication, resent outsiders and pride themselves on knowing each other’s business and of often believing they know what is best for each other. They seem naturally suspicious of anyone different, but, as a unit, they protect each other from outside scrutiny as they maintain a false picture of a just and harmonious community. Beneath the surface of camaraderie, seeds of suspicion and distrust have been planted, and soon they begin to grow into full-fledged doubts. The Avenue has witnessed a series of events which have both united and divided the residents. Some have circled the wagons to protect each other, to hide their secrets, and some have begun to question their original motives and actions. When a neighbor suddenly goes missing, they fear that their secrets have been uncovered and some grow very fearful of exposure. One neighbor fans their fear with her remarks. She seems to want to reinvent the mob mentality that once ruled the street with tragic consequences. Cracks appear in their united front as neighbor begins to suspect neighbor of wrongdoing.
When two ten-year-old children learn of the mysterious disappearance of Mrs. Margaret Creasy, Grace, the more sophisticated of the two, convinces Tilly to lie with her and pretend they are Brownies, working on a badge. In that way they can visit the neighbors and ask questions as they investigate the whereabouts of a woman they liked very much and hoped would return. **They begin their quest as a search to find G-d, since G-d is everywhere and must know where Margaret Creasy has gone. As they travel the avenue, questioning one then another of their neighbors, they hear them begin to buzz with their suspicions about why Margaret Creasy left. Her husband insists she will surely be back because she would never miss their anniversary. Some begin to suspect foul play and point a finger again, at a neighbor they dislike and have ostracized for years, have blamed for crimes, based on circumstantial evidence and prejudice. Walter Bishop is different and not welcome on their avenue and is the accused.
Many of the residents have made mistakes they have hidden and for which they have blamed others. Their behavior going forward was colored with their shame and guilt, but rarely with remorse. To be fair, the neighbors lacked sophistication. They were all flawed in some way. While they lived with their personal shame, they shamefully took their pain out on others.
***Which of the neighbors were sheep and which were goats? Were they all a part of each? Could they find redemption? What seemed like a simple story, at first, about a woman who disappears, begins to have a deeper secret hidden within it, like that in the parable of the goats and the sheep. Will the two ten year old girls find G-d and/or Margaret Creasy? The book is written with the voice and mindset of a ten year old and it is often humorous with guileless dialogue that comes out of the mouths of babes and encourages chuckling. The young sleuths are charming and the author’s prose is lyrical. The subject matter is clean without filthy language or sex.
The narrator does a great job of expressing the personality of each of the characters, young and old. She defines the childlike voices of Grace Bennett and her friend Tilly and perfectly captures the edge in some of the other characters, their meanness, their shame, their innocence, their differences, using a separate voice for each of them and a different pattern to depict their personalities. Grace’s strength, Tilly’s naïveté, Sheila’s suspicious nature, Mrs. Morton’s humiliation and resultant resentment, Walter Bishop’s strangeness which influences the communities reaction to him, Thin Brian’s lack of confidence, Eric’s equanimity, the tormented Sheila who is ashamed of her past and the racism of some of the neighbors comes alive with her interpretation.
When the book concludes, we don’t discover the final consequences of this community’s code of silence, but we do know that when Mrs. Creasy returns, she will bring with her the certain knowledge of events that she was never meant to discover, knowledge of their secrets, knowledge which will make them face and stare down at their own guilt and shameful behavior, behavior that in the eyes of G-d would possibly make them goats, creatures to be banished from the community, consigned to the fires of Hell. Those they persecuted and ostracized might very well be the ones to sit beside the right hand of G-d. Were some of the characters a combination of sheep and goat or were they simply goats in sheep’s clothing? Are we all part goat and sheep. Does the goat rule in some of us and the sheep in others? Are innocent children the only pure sheep? Another question is, if there is a path to redemption, why do they not take it? If G-d accepts everyone, why would he shun goats? Many other questions will remain for discussion.
One explanation of the parable when referring to the death of Jesus, is that he was condemned, not for a real crime, but for the perceived crime of being different, of having different ideas, and of behaving differently, not fitting in with the crowd. I thought of our current election season in America, in 2016, in which the rhetoric and insults, one to another, simply point out the differences that exist and will not be tolerated by some, publicly crying out for unity, while they privately speak out against it. I believe that the parable of the goats and sheep is meant to teach people to accept and love each other, even with their differences, rather than to judge and condemn each other for being different. After all, are we not all the same? Don’t we stand united and fall divided? That is the message that the book imparted to me.
*”According to Wikipedia, Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision making outcome.” Other sites describe it in a similar fashion.
**The girl’s search for answers seems loosely based on the parable that refers to sheep and goats. In their quest, the girls find out that there are “goats” who will be banished from the left side of G-d, because they are the troublemakers, and there are sheep that will sit on the right side of G-d because they are the peacemakers.” (http://www.gotquestions.org/parable-sheep-goats.html)
***“The core message of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats is that God’s people will love others. Good works will result from our relationship to the Shepherd. Followers of Christ will treat others with kindness, serving them as if they were serving Christ himself. The unregenerate live in the opposite manner. While “goats” can indeed perform acts of kindness and charity, their hearts are not right with God, and their actions are not for the right purpose – to honor and worship God.”
While the book seems to have a connection to the parable, it is not a book about religion, it is more about righteousness and having faith in something. It should be good reading for everyone.