14 Jun 2017

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep

A book that came under my radar purely because I kept seeing it everywhere, the inquisitively named The Trouble With Goats and Sheep was not what I expected. To be honest, I wasn't really sure what I expected with a title like this, but it quickly becomes clear as you get into it. The analogy of 'goats' and 'sheep' is used in the bible essentially to separate the good people from the bad in the eyes of God, and is cleverly woven throughout the novel by Cannon to epitomize the themes, and used often satirically (and literally) by the narrator (a ten-year-old). The novel is set amidst the notoriously hot summer of 1976, oscillating between the perspective of a ten-year-old Grace, and other inhabitants of 'The Avenue', and recounts the unsettling and unexplained disappearance of Mrs Creasy, who one morning, is reported missing by her husband. With no other logical explanation than perhaps she has discovered some long-buried, deep and dark secrets of those she lives amongst, and the unravelling starts from there. 

Narrated mostly by ten-year-old Grace, the disappearance of a women through a child's eyes is eye-opening in it's unusually intelligent perspective. An innocent outlook appears to be somewhat more accurate than anything any of the adults come out with, and it is only from the outside looking in that we really see the hypocrisy, inaccuracy and nonsensical nature of some of the things that pass us by on a day-to-day basis; things that we say are given a whole new dimension of ridicule when questioned by a child. For instance, Grace's parents tell her she is at the 'awkward' age, and she notes that, well, she doesn't feel awkward so it must be the parents who do. Her literal mindset is very endearing (and refreshing amidst the hard-hitting subject matter). Given the weighty subjects of religion, exclusion and falling short of societal norms, the tone of the novel is fairly light and humurous at times due to the child's perspective, or perhaps quirky is the word. It softens the uncomfortable attitudes of the 1970's, regarding race and cultural acceptance is observed by Cannon interestingly. Particularly highlighted as the Kapoors move onto the avenue; and most of the dialogue towards them are ones that would be completely unacceptable nowadays, and interesting to see how society has progressed in forty years (much for the better). Some of the things Grace's parents come out with are jaw-droppers...

Grace and Tilly's quest to find God (and thus find the missing Mrs Creasy) is what drives us around the avenue, like a lens, taking us behind closed doors into the homes of each resident, one by one, and they gently disclose their secrets that weave into each others lives. Each resident has their own story to tell which we get in fragments to fill in the blanks ourselves; each appears to be fighting a battle in their own way. The character of Walter Bishop is undoubtedly the most thought-provoking. An outsider in all senses of the word, Walter is ostracized by all of those around him purely on assumptions and rumours on his behaviour towards children in the past (it is reiterated that the charges against him were dropped by the police and a likely case of misunderstanding). We never hear from his point-of-view, and it is only when Grace is narrating that we start to sympathise with him, and realise that what we are reading from the perspective of the adults isn't always as "gospel" as they'd like us to think it is. Often quite uncomfortable to take at times, the residents take on vigilante behaviour and make their own 'punishments' for him, with the intention of eventually driving him out of the neighbourhood. From small things like refusing to let him buy a pint of milk at the corner shop, to things much, much more sinister, the treatment towards Walter is frankly inhumane. As an outsider looking in, it seems absurd to think people would treat someone this way, but it really does highlight how 'mob mentality' is more apparent in the 'civilised' world than we think it is; (hopefully) less so nowadays.  

Perhaps the oldest trick in the book; encompassing the novel within a relentless heatwave that beats down on those beneath it oppressively renders the characters merciless to the point of entrapment, more so than they already are; pathetic fallacy at it's finest. Heat has a stagnant quality, opposed to rain, or storms, that works to draw out the days, swells the most mundane of emotions and builds into a crescendo that must be released (thus, marks the cathartic storm at the end of the novel). The heat is also used by those within the avenue to consistently dismiss odd behaviour as 'down to the heat'; a means of justification and something much easier to believe over any other forces at work, or facing reality. Something most of us are probably guilty of, blaming our bad behaviour on a 'long day' or something similar must seem illogically strange to children who do take everything literally, which is what makes this book so clever. Not only the weather, but the claustrophobic setting of a cul-de-sac heightens this further, no one leaves the avenue, so nor do we, only spectators from other roads, come to observe, and so it becomes suffocating for those within it.

The story does become slightly bizarre and hard-to-get-your-head-around when Tilly runs back to Grace to tell her she's found Jesus, which turns out to be a decaying part of a drainpipe that slightly resembles the religious figure, and consequently draws the residents of the street to sit around it for days and days afterwards (just staring at it, like jobs no longer exist and they have expendable time to watch a drainpipe...). Anyway, if you can overlook this, it's the character studies, in my opinion, that are the point of interest for this book, alongside the cleverly satirical perspectives. The book reminded me of one of Jon McGregor's novels, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, albeit much lighter in tone than McGregor's and not as hard-hitting (a must-read), but the setting of a street riddled with secrets draws parallels in many respects. If you've read this (hopefully you have, and I haven't completely spoiled it), I'd love to know your thoughts...!

Ph. taken by myself on Olympus Pen EPL-5 camera and all thoughts are my own. 


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