Monday 16 November 2015

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

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…

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon will be published in hardback by Borough Press on 28 January 2016 and is the author's debut novel.

Every now and again a debut novel comes along that creates such a buzz that it is almost impossible to ignore. Debut buzz can be created for many reasons, and by many people, and can sometimes be as much as a hindrance as a help. Some readers become determined that they are not going to go along with the hype, or that they don't want to shout about a book that seems to be on everyone's lips. Personally, I think that's all a load of tripe, for goodness sake, choose a book because you want to read it, by all means, but don't do yourself out of what could be the book of the year for you, just because you'd rather be a goat than a sheep.

Those of us that have been aware of Joanna Cannon's writing for a while have been incredibly excited by the thought of this book. Her blog is full of her words, words that ignite something within the reader, words that resonate, that remain.

England 1976. A town somewhere in the East Midlands. An avenue within that town. The hottest summer that anyone can remember. An ordinary street, in an ordinary town, populated by ordinary people.

Mrs Creasy has disappeared. Her husband wanders the street, waiting for her to return, he is convinced that she will be home in time for their Wedding Anniversary. Grace and Tilly are ten-years-old and are determined that they will find Mrs Creasy, but first they will have to find God, because God is everywhere and God knows everything. God will know what has happened to Mrs Creasy.

The adults on The Avenue are concerned about Mrs Creasy's disappearance too. They know that she visited most houses on the street. Some of them know what they had told her. They all worry about how much she knows, and what she is going to do with her knowledge.

The reader settles quickly and comfortably amongst the residents of  The Avenue. Amongst the belongs and those who 'unbelong'. The huge secret that the residents keep slowly comes to light as Grace, accompanied by strange little Tilly ask more questions and discover more and more that the things that ring loudest in their ears are the things that are left unsaid.

I wouldn't dream of telling any more about the story within The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, that's Joanna Cannon's story, not mine. However, I can say that this is one of the most intuitive, poignant and unforgettable novels that I have read in a very very long time. Although it will appeal to all, for me, it was so incredibly familiar. Like Grace and Tilly, I was ten years old in 1976 and I lived in the East Midlands. Whilst my rural village home was not on an avenue in a town, my village had its fair share of goats and sheep. Back then, I didn't recognise them, but now, looking back I see them and hear them quite clearly.

The feeling of familiarity continues with Joanna Cannon's fine detail within her writing, the neat and skilful way that she incorporates the 1970s detail; Whimsies, Kay's Catalogue, Angel Delight and turning the TV on to 'warm up'. Her writing is honest, precise and quite irresistible. The suffocating and scorching unbearable heat of the summer adds intensity and depth to the story as the characters slowly realise that their darkest secrets, kept for many years may be exposed. Their despair screams from the pages, getting louder towards the end as they realise that those who they assumed were sheep, may actually be goats.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is quite extraordinary. It is a very special novel that should be savoured. There are passages, sometimes just a line, that will make the reader stop and re-read, purely to delight in the way that the words are put together. This is an ambitious story, but also a beautiful story.

A triumph, a joy, a gift to the reader.

Huge thanks to the team at Borough Press and Joanna Cannon who put my name on the 'waiting list' and ensured that I received an advance copy for review. My finished copy is on pre-order, and I am in no doubt that I will be buying multiple copies, to thrust upon my friends and family.

From Joanna Cannon - the story behind The Trouble with Goats and Sheep
Working in psychiatry, I meet a lot of people who 'unbelong'. Those who live on the periphery of life, pushed by society to the very edge of the dancefloor, where they try to copy what everyone else is doing, but never quite get it right. There is a silent herd of unbelongers out there, not just on mental health wards, but stitched through the landscape of everyone's day, walking around supermarkets and standing in bus queues. These are the 'goats'. The people who just don't fit in, who 'aren't quite like us'. It's only when something goes wrong, and society needs someone to blame, that the sheep turn to the goats and say, we they were strange all along, and of course they must be guilty, because they just look the type, don't they?
I decided to write Goats and Sheep, because I believe there is a little unbelonging in all of us - it's just that some people are better at hiding it than others. In the story, everyone on The Avenue has something to conceal, a reason for not fitting in. It's only in the thick, suffocating heat of the summer, that the ability to hide these differences becomes impossible, and along with the fractured lawns and the melting tarmac, the lives of all the neighbours begin to deconstruct. Through the eyes of Grace, our ten-year-old narrator, we discover that if we scratch the surface of most sheep, we might very well find ourselves with a goat. And the biggest problem of all, is trying to work out the difference.
I wrote Goats and Sheep at four o'clock in the morning before I went to work, in a wide variety of NHS car parks during my lunch break, and occasionally on a night shift (on the very - very - rare occasion when all my patients were asleep at the same time). It was always a battle between hours and words, but the story was so important to me. I wrote it because I hope it will remind us that we should always ask questions of ourselves. I thought it might help us to be a little kinder to those who stand at the edge of the dancefloor, and perhaps if we spend time looking through Grace's eyes for a little while, it might just help us to realise that unbelonging is actually a belonging all of its own.

Borough Press discovered Joanna Cannon through the WoMentoring Project - a programme set up in 2014 by author Kerry Hudson to match mentors from the publishing industry with talented up and coming female writers.

Joanna Cannon is a psychiatric doctor, and her interest in people on the fringes of society and the borders of sanity has inspired her writing.

She lives in the Peak District and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is her first novel.

For more information about Joanna Cannon, and her writing, visit her website and blog 
Follow her on Twitter @JoannaCannon   #GoatsAndSheep



  1. I've been waiting to see a review of this for ages and am so happy to hear from you that it's as good as everyone is saying it is. Can't wait to read it!

  2. I enjoyed this novel immensely. The child's viewpoint worked so well and the adult characters were beautifully drawn in the stifling atmosphere of that long, hot summer.

  3. One of the ones I'm most looking forward too... both for premise & placement. Great review Anne☺