Goats and sheep book

One of my writer friends has given me a horror of the kind of book that begins: “Something happened on a particular day. I know it was that particular day because … ” Like salted caramel ice cream or pulled pork, it has become very fashionable, and now it’s been pointed out to me, I’ve begun to see it everywhere. So I wasn’t predisposed to like Joanna Cannon’s debut The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, as her first two sentences read: “Mrs Creasy disappeared on a Monday. I know it was a Monday, because it was the day the dustbin men came …”

Which makes it all the more impressive that, despite this, I found the first chapter of this novel to be one of the best, most lively and funny openings I’ve read in ages. It’s set in the famously hot summer of 1976 and narrated by 10-year-old Grace, and the first 30 or so pages skate along on her charm, her oblique moments of perception, and her humorous observations: “Remington padded into the kitchen. He used to be a Labrador, but he’d become so fat, it was difficult to tell.”

Meanwhile, the central mystery of the novel is being set up – the disappearance of the neighbour Mrs Creasy. There are several other mysteries in this novel, including the brief kidnapping of a baby, a case of arson, and what a group of neighbours did nine years previously – something they discuss frequently without ever letting the reader get an idea of what exactly it was. In order to explore all this, Grace’s story is interspersed with six other perspectives, giving the reader insight into the inner lives of some of the secretive neighbours. These include Dorothy, who is bullied by her sinister husband, Eric, still grieving for his dead former wife; Brian, whose development seems to have been stunted by an overbearing mother; and John Creasy, husband of the missing woman. As in an Agatha Christie novel, each character is concealing a secret, but not necessarily the one you suspect.

Cannon obviously has an interest in the everyday tragedies of ordinary people, individuals mired in grief and open to making life-changing errors, and she makes their disappointments real and painful for the reader, though tempered with levity. Dorothy, contemplating the way her husband’s anger makes her forget her words, remembers the times he has aggressively suggested the nouns she searches for: “Cuddly toy, she said one day, to make him laugh. But Harold didn’t laugh. Instead, he stared at her as though she had walked into the conversation uninvited, and then he had closed the back door very quietly … somehow the quietness filled a room even more than the anger.”

For some readers there may be too many ordinary misfortunes; too many enigmas in the one book. Each section is filled with evocative descriptions of dusty suburban streets, middle-class front rooms and the British Legion club. People drink Babycham and read Jackie, watch The Good Life and promise children bowls of Angel Delight. At first the atmosphere is compelling, but with each change in point of view, and the introduction of yet another secret to be revealed, the impact of the book lessens. I became impatient for the reveal(s) and frustrated by the intervening chapters. And with so many revelations, it’s inevitable that the ending feels rather rushed.

Having said that, this is a novel to be savoured rather than hurried through. It’s a book about a community and the way the members of that community collude with occasionally disturbing consequences: imagine Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, set in 1970s English suburbia. In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep nothing and nobody is perfect, and the explanations aren’t too neat, either; instead, the various characters’ histories come together to form a vibrant whole, reminding me both of Carys Bray’s brilliantly profound A Song for Issy Bradley, with its parallel narratives, and of Kate Atkinson’s wry and clever Jackson Brodie novels. Full of humour and careful depictions of everyday suffering, this is not so much a mystery novel as an investigation into the wealth of secrets and heartbreak that even the most commonplace street can hold.

• Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing is published by Penguin. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon (Harper Collins Paperbacks, £12.99). To order a copy for £10.39, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep Summary & Study Guide

The following version of this book was used to create this guide: Cannon, Joanna. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep: A Novel. New York: Scribner, 2015.

The novel opens with the disappearance of a neighbor, Mrs. Creasy, on The Avenue. This disappearance is discussed in the Bennetts’ house and handled in a sardonic manner when Mr. Bennett sees Mr. Creasy looking about his property. Grace, the young daughter of Sylvia and Derek Bennett, assumes Mrs. Creasy has been murdered. On the way to school, Grace and her best friend, Tilly, discuss this possibility.

When nearly a week passes and Mrs. Creasy has not returned, it plunges the neighborhood into speculation and Grace into an existential crisis. Grace now wonders why people disappear, why people have to die, and whether or not disappearance and death are the same thing. When she asks the local clergyman why some people disappear, he responds that some people stray from the path. Poised to ask about death, she finds the vicar has already walked away, leaving her with questions. She then begins to ask her neighborhood if they believe in God. The first person she asks is Mrs. Morton, an older woman who often takes care of Grace, but she dismisses it as a silly and foolish question. Grace decides to spend her summer holiday finding God and the missing Mrs. Creasy with the help of her friend, Tilly.

Mrs. Creasy’s disappearance is the cause of much gossip; first, because the neighborhood is prone to discussing scandals; and, second, Mrs. Creasy, a kind and easy-to-talk-to woman, was the holder of many of the residents’ secrets. Many worry that she will expose them, and many of the conversations on The Avenue now revolve around trying to solve this problem. Over the course of the novel, many individual secrets are revealed by the character’s conversations or thoughts. For example, Brian Roper’s illiteracy or Eric Lamb purposely overdosing his wife when she was in incredible pain and dying with cancer. While the former fills the individual characters with guilt and shame, none of the secrets are as overreaching as the 1967 fire then consumed a portion of Walter Bishop’s house and, most devastating, killed his elderly mother.

Walter Bishop, an ostracized member of the small community because of his eccentricities, is treated with harsh judgment and often disgust; for example, one member of the community, Sheila Dakin, calls him a pervert. It was speculated that, in 1967, Walter stole a baby and left it in the nearby park. This perceived transgression, coupled with his odd behaviors, cause the residents to discuss his removal from the neighborhood. One resident, Sylvia Bennett, suggests that if he did not have a home, he would have to leave. Another resident, Harold Forbes, suggests a fire. While Walter and his mother were supposed to be on holiday, a fire erupts at Number Eleven, Walter’s home. Clearly, the neighborhood is involved, but there are numerous suspects in the arson.

The tensions of the characters increase as the weeks pass by and Mrs. Creasy does not appear, nor does God. Grace’s search for God ends on a physical level when Tilly finds an image of Jesus in a creosote stain on a drainpipe. While not religiously finding God in her search, Grace does find self-awareness as she matures, especially in realizing her selfish ways and how she takes others for granted. At the end of the novel, the allegations against Walter end up being false; Mrs. Morton was the one who took the baby on a stroll without asking her mother, Sylvia, first; then she lied and said she found the younger Grace in the park. Mrs. Creasy returns to the neighborhood, but not before discussing what was revealed to her about the fire with police. The culprit of the fire ends up being Mrs. Forbes, who, in righteous indignation, took it upon herself to rid the neighborhood of evil, but instead, created it.

134 Good Housekeeping readers read and reviewed The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon.
80% of readers rated it overall as very good/excellent.
81% would read another book written by Joanna Cannon again.
74% would recommend this book to a friend.

England,1976.

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 imagine

MORE: Be part of the GH Reader Recommended Books initiative and become one of our reviewers today!

Here’s what our readers had to say about The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

‘I was thoroughly engrossed with this book and loved the characters, particularly Grace and Tilly. The descriptions of the sweltering hot summer of 1976 were so true to life (as remembered by myself) and so vividly written about. I was so sorry to finish the book and copies of the book will be bought for friends and family. I hope it won’t be too long before Joanna Cannon has another book published. Thank you for introducing me to such a fabulous book and author.’

‘Fabulous evocation of place, time (a time I remember fairly well) and social attitudes. Some delightful throw away references to the thoughtless cruelty of which children are so often guilty. Great characterisation – OK it’s occasionally a bit caricature but hugely enjoyable for all that. Overall I was very impressed.’

‘I found the themes running through the book interesting. The structure of the story told through the thoughts and actions of two young girls was original. I thoroughly enjoyed it. An excellent first novel.’

‘It was very atmospheric. It took me back to that long hot summer and triggered lots of memories of that time.’

If you see a book with a Good Housekeeping Reader Recommended Books logo on it, you can feel confident that it has been read and loved by women just like you.

MORE: Join our book club on Facebook for more good reads