In telling the story of a small community overrun by gossip, prejudice, and secrets, Joanna Cannon humorously reveals the dangers of obstinate righteousness through the voices of two ten year old girls. In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, a series of mishaps and strange occurrences threaten to upset the quiet row of British country houses in a small neighborhood – small enough that every knows every one else’s business, and if they don’t, they are willing to create their own versions of reality.
The driving focus of the story is Mrs. Cleasy’ s sudden disappearance. As the search for her continues throughout the story, Cannon introduces a series of related incidents as possible clues to the mystery through the voice of ten year old Grace. Mrs. Cleasy’s disappearance could be simply escape from her life or something more sinister. The neighbors fear she may have uncovered a secret that could expose their past shameful action. Ignorant of the adults’ trepidation, Grace, a resourceful 10-year-old convinces herself and her loyal friend, Tilly, that everything might go back to normal if only they can find God.
Posing as Brownies seeking badges, Grace and her friend Tilly, pursue their own investigation, and as they interview each neighbor they slowly uncover the neighborhood’s secret – an insidious plot against one resident that happened nine years earlier.
The title refers to a biblical verse:
“…He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left…he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire…”
The trouble, Grace discovers as she interviews her neighbors, is deciding who are the goats and who are the sheep. Under the guise of a quiet existence, each has a secret misery: Dorothy, bullied by her husband, Eric; Brian, who cannot escape his overbearing mother; John Creasy, husband of the missing woman, who fears his wife has discovered what he has done. Each character is concealing a secret, but not necessarily the one you suspect. In addition, two unexplained scandals lurk in the air – a kidnapped baby and a house fire – as well as the neighbors anxiety and anger over two who do not fit into their expectations – an Indian family newly moved in and a bachelor with long hair who likes to take photographs.
With so many diversions, the story may seem overwhelming. Cannon’s wry humor, however, manages to expose human frailty while cautioning the reader to beware of making assumptions. Her diversion into a creosote stain on a drainpipe that looks like Jesus is hilarious, with the neighbors keeping watch and fighting over the placement of lawn chairs to keep vigil. In her review for the New York Times last year, Samantha Hunt noted:
Jesus’ manifestation births a driveway vigil, a Chautauqua of folding chairs and a struggle. Who sits closest to Jesus? This caldron of neighbors grows hot. At what temperature will community boil over into mob violence? Fear is contagious in small spaces… What belongs where? Who owns what? And what hollow treats will be developed to distract us from the real crimes committed in the name of safety?
Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist, privy to many secret fears; she has said her book was inspired by her patients and by the story of Christopher Jefferies, the retired teacher and landlord who was falsely implicated in the murder of Joanna Yeates in Bristol in 2010, and later won libel damages for the way he was portrayed in some newspapers.
In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Cannon may be sharing her insights about inner miseries and hypocrisies, and their manifestations on others – and perhaps, cautioning that we may not know our neighbors as well as we think.
Although a friend recommended this book a year ago, I returned my library copy unread – just could not get to it. I was reminded of it recently from an interview on By the Book, and glad I read it – a book full of humor and profound moments worth thinking about and discussing.
Cannon has another book due to be published in January – Three Things About Elsie. This time I’ve preordered it.