A superbly-written morality tale. 4/5 stars.
The blurb: England, 1976.
Mrs Creasy is missing and The Avenue is alive with whispers. As the summer shimmers endlessly on, ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly decide to take matters into their own hands.
And as the cul-de-sac starts giving up its secrets, the amateur detectives will find much more than they imagined…
I’d seen a lot about this book on other blogs, but only came to read it because Lindsay @bookboodle won two tickets to an event with Joanna Cannon at Waterstones in Birmingham and generously invited me to be her plus one (thank you!). It was a great evening – here’s the photographic evidence.
Joanna spoke very eloquently about her book and writing, which made me extra nervous about writing this review because I want to do The Trouble with Goats and Sheep justice. So here goes…
The story is set on a suburban street in the East Midlands in the summer of 1976 and the tiny period details are marvellous. One mention of Arctic roll made me snort with laughter – this used to be such a treat in our house when I was growing up! As a result I think British readers born before the mid-1980s will get the most from this book. That’s not to say that younger readers or those from other countries won’t enjoy it, but some of the finer nuances will probably be lost on them.
Our main, first-person narrator is ten-year old Grace. Her innocent, agenda-free view is contrasted to the various third-person viewpoints of the adult residents of the Avenue. I enjoy multiple POV stories and the author uses these perspectives very well: the voices are distinct, believable and each contributes something different to the narrative.
The writing is terrific. Every single word has weight, true heft. There is not one extraneous adverb or superfluous adjective. The result is a prose which is both easy-to-read and packed full of meaning. I guarantee Creative Writing teachers will be using excerpts from this book in their courses.
As a writer, we are constantly told to “show” our readers what’s happening, rather than “tell” them. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep excels at this. However, perhaps it goes too far. Occasionally a little bit of “telling” can be a good thing: it gives the reader a break and speeds things up. In this book, the overall result of the impressively “weighty” writing + showing, showing, showing = a slow-paced story which takes its time to grab the reader.
I wasn’t gripped by the story until around page 250. I could have put it down, not picked it up again and wouldn’t have been bothered by not finding out what happened to Mrs Creasy. This is the reason why I haven’t given this book 5 stars. I’m not sure more impatient readers would stick with it. But they should. Not long after page 250 a new family moves to the Avenue and brings a few moments where I laughed out loud. And, more importantly, it’s in its second half that we come to fully understand and appreciate the story’s wisdom.
Overall: this is a quiet, subtle story; a carefully-placed collection of small details which accumulate to produce a thought-provoking whole. Highly-recommended for all readers with the patience to stick with it.
Claire Huston / Art and Soul