Review: The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, by Joanna Cannon
This was pitched as a mystery in 1970s Britain, in the record-breaking heat wave of the summer of 1976, solved by two precocious ten-year-olds. It actually is more of a social commentary, character-driven novel, but it was quite a lovely read regardless (even though the mystery was a bit... blah).
The central mystery is the disappearance of Margaret Creasy, the neighborhood's friendly local free therapist, who gathered all the secrets and inner pains of those living on the Avenue - including the pretty big secret of what actually happened the night, nine years ago, when Walter Bishop's (the local weirdo who is suspected of being a pedophile and who likes taking some, admittedly, weird pictures of the people living on the street) house burned and his mother died. It's pretty obvious from the way the flashbacks are structured that it's the other people on the street who set fire to the house, and then tried to cover it up and pass it off as an accident; the real mystery was the motive behind the fire, and whether or not they knew the mother was there, and whether or not knowing all of that is what made Margaret disappear. Unfortunately, the mystery ended up being very tangential to the actual plot of the story, and the 'disappearance' resolves itself through a bit of a deus ex machina and we never really find out anything more about the fire than we do through the ambiguous flashbacks.
The real strength of this novel lies in the narrator, 10-year-old Grace Bennet, and the way she interacts with the adults on the street and her friend Tilly. Tilly has leukemia, and the understanding Grace has of this disease and the way it colors her relationship with Tilly and her parents is really sweet, really aware, and really heartbreaking. Joanna Cannon does a great job of putting us in everyone's heads as the POV chapters flit around the street, as well. And the wry little asides from Grace were so funny, so on the nose, and so perfectly timed that I was more than once in actual stitches.
All told, this was an enjoyable, speedy read that served as an effective, functional character study - I think I would have enjoyed it more if the mystery had been more central, or if there had been a bit more social commentary at large (the only attempt at wider social commentary was the chapters in which an Indian family moves to the neighborhood, there's a lot of casual racism, and then we just never touch on any of those subjects again - that felt a bit sloppy). But it was a good way to spend a weekend, and I look forward to discussing it at the FictionMatters book club this weekend.