Friday 21 October 2016

Books: A nuanced, charming first novel

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon, The Borough Press €17.99

Justine Carbery

Published 25/01/2016 | 02:30

Second chance: Author Joanna Cannon left school at 15, and returned to education in her 30s to become a doctor.
Second chance: Author Joanna Cannon left school at 15, and returned to education in her 30s to become a doctor.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Two things about January: it rained a lot and I read lots of books. Some good, some mediocre and one gem. How wonderful to open the first page of a book and know instantly that you are going to love it. And so it was with The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by author Joanna Cannon, who left school at 15 and worked in a wide range of jobs before returning to education in her 30s, becoming a doctor specialising in psychiatry. Her understanding of what makes us tick, our faults and fears, is one of the highlights of this wonderful novel.

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Set in 1976, the hottest summer on record, the action all takes place in a very ordinary suburb of a very ordinary town somewhere in the East Midlands. We meet Grace of No. 4, The Avenue, and her best friend Tilly - two captivating 10-year-olds who decide to investigate the sudden disappearance of Mrs Creasy from No. 8. The dynamic duo decides to solve the mystery by finding Jesus - who of, course, knows everything.

But all is not as it seems on The Avenue. Behind every closed door in this ordinary street lurks a fear of 'unbelonging'. Everyone is harbouring secrets, prejudices, traumas of their own. In order to deflect attention from their own failings they turn on the one resident who stands out as being different.

Grace and Tilly's mission takes them up and down the Avenue, where most of the residents inadvertently reveal their secrets to them.

What unfolds is a charming, thought-provoking novel, evocative and beautifully written, which transports us back to the time of Angel Delight, Custard Creams and Sherbet Fountains.

We remember turning the TV on to 'warm up'. We recognise the characters who inhabit this world. We relate to their faults and failings, each one so well drawn you can imagine them peering out the net-curtained windows in their houses on the cul-de-sac. And we see the world through the eyes of these two amateur sleuths in this sweet, coming-of-age story. Their perceptions, as yet unsullied by prejudice, are insightful, and their innocent questions demand answers.

The very weather itself is wonderfully evoked: "There was nowhere to escape the heat. It was there every day when we awoke, persistent and unbroken, and hanging in the air like an unfinished argument." Every word is pitch perfect, the language simple yet nuanced, the images clear yet multi-layered. A deceptively simple tale, part mystery, part social history, it will beguile you with its charm, warmth and humanity. I gobbled it up, resenting anyone or anything that took me away from this wonderful world.

Whimsical and memorable, this stunning debut novel will definitely be a favourite in every book club around the country. An utter joy to read.

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