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The Trouble with Goats and SheepReview - The Trouble with Goats and Sheep
A Novel
by Joanna Cannon
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2016
Review by Christian Perring
Jan 10th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 2)

I remember when I was a teenager, one of my school teachers said that a class exercise would help separate the sheep from the goats. I assumed then that it was better to be one of the goats – independent and active rather than passive and waiting to be told what the right answer was. Joanna Cannon's novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep raises the issue for me of what my teacher meant, because the parable of Jesus is clear that the sheep-like followers will go to heaven while the stubborn goats will go to hell. Cannon's novel is all about the conformity of a small community and their inability to question their social rules in an honest way. But it is also about how people secretly break the social rules and then work hard to avoid getting found out, showing that they are not as sheep-like as they first seem. Cannon makes fun of the way in particular people use Christianity to justify their hateful self-serving actions. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is a thoughtful novel but ultimately pessimistic about people. It turns out that its author Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist who has probably heard many people's secrets.

The unabridged audiobook is performed by British actor Paula Wilcox. Presumably this is the same person as the TV performer who has been on screens regularly since the 1970s, and who is now in her 60s. This is an unusual choice because much of the narration is by 10-year-old Grace in 1976. Her skills at accents are strong. She is originally from Manchester, and although it isn't so clear where the novel set. Wilcox's performance places it squarely in the north of Britain, and since author Cannon lives near the Peak District, this is appropriate.  The performance is good but it does drag occasionally, in its more reflective moments.

It's not clear how old Joanna Cannon is, but this novel is strongly nostalgic for the 1970s. It is so filled with references to household products and cultural icons from that era that it seems a bit forced. One of Grace's favorite deserts is Angel Delight. While there is no reference to youth trends such as punk, there is anticipation of the Queen's Jubilee that was coming, and some of the trends of immigration bringing people from other countries into the British heartland. Mostly though, it is very much about a specific population of lower middle class white northerners, with frequent flashbacks to events in 1967.

There are multiple plot threads, and the narration switches between the points of view of several characters. It is often confusing exactly what is going on, but the main story is clear enough. Grace and her friend Tillie, both 10, are trying to make sense of the world and they embark on a project of finding God, who they are told is everywhere. They ask many people on their Avenue what their religious beliefs are. They find out people have all sorts of ideas that don't fit well with each other. It's a nice plot device to provide a portrait of a community.

But the main figure of the novel is Walter Bishop, who is the most vilified figure in The Avenue by the others who live there. He has a reputation as a pervert with an unhealthy interest in children, who would kidnap them given the opportunity. The central idea of the novel is that Walter is certainly someone who does not fit in with those around him, but it is far from clear that he deserves the harsh treatment he receives. Because he does not fit in, many angry people in the area target and blame him for many of the bad things that happen.  As people's secrets get revealed, it becomes clear that many other people in the street routinely make other people's lives a misery.

The rather depressing side of the novel is balanced by a heavy dose of humor, with all sorts of whimsy and banter between characters. It's easy to imagine this as a TV program and it isn't surprising that the novel has already been optioned for this purpose. The book could still have benefitted from more editing: the audiobook version is 11 hours and could have been cut down significantly. Nevertheless, Cannon's first novel stands out as a well-crafted debut work.

 

© 2017 Christian Perring

 

Christian Perring teaches philosophy in NYC.


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