Like Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion, reviewed below, this is set mainly during the hot, hot summer of 1976, the stifling heat adding to the claustrophobic atmosphere of this unusual domestic mystery. The main narrator is a precocious and purposeful child, Grace Bennett, whose observations of adult behaviour and the goings in and out of neighbouring houses on a middle-class avenue give something of the flavour of a sitcom, like Are You Being Served? and The Good Life, both of which shape the weeks of Dorothy and Harold Forbes (the names, too, are redolent of constrained, conventional lives). But there are nasty stirrings beneath the respectability, as we gradually discover in the aftermath of a disappearance. Mrs Margaret Creasy, married to the apparently autistic John, has vanished without trace, and several residents of The Avenue have theories to air or secrets to hide. Ten-year-old Grace and her friend Tilly decide to devote the otherwise uneventful summer holidays to a search for both Mrs Creasy and God, who they trust will keep everyone safe.
A large part of the novel’s charm comes from Grace’s distinctive voice, and the tactics she learns in order to encourage adults to reveal themselves. “I waited. I had discovered that, sometimes, if you held on to the silence, people couldn’t stop themselves from filling it up.” Grace’s knowingness often veers too close to cuteness, and sometimes the childish aperçus are underlined for the reader by coming at the end of a section, as when Keithie, told by Grace that his sense of belonging to a football team is only in his head, responds, “But that’s the only place that really matters.”
This sense of belonging or not-belonging is a central theme, indicated by the sheep and goats of the title. Grace, to Tilly’s disapproval, wants to emulate the clothes and mannerisms of teenage Lisa; a newly-arrived Indian family is treated with condescension; the neighbours, hardly plausibly, collaborate in a joint delusion that a creosote stain on a wall is the face of Jesus, assembling daily to pay homage to it. But at the chilling heart of the novel is the hardening of opinion against Walter Bishop, the lonely man viewed as ‘outsider’, and the gathering of something resembling a lynch mob as rumours accumulate. Neighbourliness gives way to ugly prejudice in scenes that call to mind Kristallnacht or the Ku Klux Klan; those characters uneasy about the rising hostility tend to be the quieter ones, whose misgivings are ignored by others bent on drastic action.
The structure is ingenious, focusing our attention on the build-up to a tragedy. In 1976, the ‘present’ of the novel, we move through sweltering days towards the inevitable cathartic break in the weather, while in the past, nine years earlier, we begin on December 21st and work backwards. Known to various parties, the events of that decisive night are relayed to the reader in a succession of hints, while exposure and repercussions threaten. Each household, it seems, is hiding a secret; some shameful or even criminal, others touching. The author cleverly plays with our assumptions and sympathies, making us reassess the characters as the plot unfolds.
In several ways this novel reminds me of Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Both authors have a way of expressing insights with simple, poignant clarity: widower Eric Lamb reflects that “the past often broke into the present like an intruder, dangerous and unwanted. Yet whenever the past was invited in, whenever its presence was requested, it seemed to fade into nothing, and made you wonder if it had ever really existed in the first place.” The two novels share a kind of innocence and openness; in Harold Fry's case, in his impulsive decision to set off on his walk, trusting in chance and the kindness of strangers to sustain him; here, in the counterpointing of Grace and Tilly's speculations with adult guilt and sorrows. Joanna Cannon's ending, though, suffers from a last-moment deus-ex-machina revelation and a number of unanswered questions and improbabilities.
If there’s such a thing as a Reading Group novel, this is it - in fact, that’s why I read it, as the September choice of a member of the group I'm part of. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is an engaging page-turner, full of charm, its lightness of tone both highlighting the absurdity of adult behaviour and concealing sinister impulses beneath apparently ordinary lives. And, usefully for any discussion, it’s likely to divide opinion.