Review: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Lucy Scholes

Joanna Cannon’s debut novel tells the gripping tale of a cul-de-sac thrown into anxiety when a long-term resident disappears. There’s much to admire, but it’s a shame about the length, says Lucy Scholes.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep
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In its design toward containment and isolation, the cul-de-sac at the heart of Joanna Cannon’s debut novel neatly replicates what the suburban street has come to stand for in popular culture.

Anyone who grew up on such a cul-de-sac will attest to the fine line that exists between concerned citizen and nosey neighbour. Cannon artfully reinforces this sense of claustrophobia through her choice of setting, the oppressive heat wave of 1976:

“There was nowhere to escape the heat. It was there every day when we awoke, persistent and unbroken, and hanging in the air like an unfinished argument. It leaked people’s days on to pavements and patios and, no longer able to contain ourselves within brick and cement, we melted into the outside, bringing our lives along with us. Meals, conversations, discussions were all woken and untethered and allowed outdoors.”

This breakdown of traditional boundaries between private life and public life is helped along by the strange disappearance of Mrs Creasy, one of the avenue’s long-time residents.

Creasy mysteriously ups and leaves her home one day without a word to anyone, not even her husband, about where she was going.

There’s no trace of where she might have gone, who she disappeared with or whether she left under coercion or of her own accord.
 

"Anyone who grew up on such a cul-de-sac will attest to the fine line that exists between concerned citizen and nosey neighbour."

This lack of information doesn’t much help those looking for her, but it does spark an active rumour mill into action, uniting the residents of the avenue in their anxiety and suspicion.

We see events unfolding through the eyes of 10-year-old Grace. This allows for a delightful dose of wide-eyed naivety when it comes to some of the more unsavoury elements of life on the avenue, as well as providing much-needed light relief.

“My mother said I was at an awkward age. I didn’t feel especially awkward, so I presumed she meant that it was awkward for them.”

Trouble with Goats and Sheep is also a coming-of-age story, as the disquiet surrounding Mrs Creasy’s disappearance is swept up in the general uneasiness that accompanies Grace’s impending adolescence:

“Even the avenue had changed. Giant fissures had opened on yellowed lawns and paths felt soft and unsteady… Things which had been solid and reliable were now pliant and uncertain. Nothing felt sure any more… It felt as though the whole avenue was shifting and stretching, and trying to escape itself.”

Cannon’s experience as a psychiatric doctor must have afforded her hours of close character study, all of which have proved invaluable in bringing the residents of the avenue to life on the page. The perfectly evocative description of a widow, “tweeded and scrubbed, and rattling like a pebble in a life made for two,” for example.

There’s much to admire here, and it will be interesting to see what she writes next. Overall however, the length will be off-putting to some readers.

It’s disappointing that a writer with an obvious talent for concision when it comes to individual sentences didn’t choose overall brevity.