Monday, 16 May 2016

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon



published 2016, set in 1976



trouble with goats 2Trouble with goats 4




[Grace and Tilly are going to a funeral]

“I’m not sure this is such a good idea, Gracie.” Tilly stood in front of my wardrobe and stared into the mirror.

“You told me you didn’t have anything black,” I said.

“But it’s a poncho.”

“It has black in it,” I said.

She peered at herself. “It has lots of other colours in it as well.”

“It’s important to wear black at a funeral. It’s respectful.”

“What black are you wearing?”

“I was going to wear my black socks,” I said, “but it’s too hot, so I’m wearing a black watch strap.”

I tried to hand her my spare pair of sunglasses, but then I realized she hadn’t got any arms, so I put the sunglasses on her face. “I still don’t understand why we are going,” she said.


 
commentary: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is set in the long hot summer of 1976, and has proved very popular since it was published earlier this year. Cannon has had lots of positive reviews and the book has sold well and been snapped up for a TV drama. I wanted and expected to like it a lot.

Half of the book is narrated by Grace, who is 12 and lives in a Midlands town. She and her friend Tilly know everyone locally. A woman goes missing: the street is agog, and Grace and Tilly set out to try to find out what is going on. Alternating with Grace’s narration, we look at events in the street from the POV of other adults, and we also look back to events 10 years or more previously. I found these shifts in narration unsatisfying, but Grace was more of a problem.

Child narrators can be difficult. In one of my all-time favourite books, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, the heroine Cassandra overhears someone describing her as a ‘consciously naïve’ kid and she is mortified. Ever since, that phrase has been my test for child narrators. I would say that about 95% of literary children, including Grace and Tilly, are exactly that, and it is a bad thing. Some reviewers have complained that Grace’s language, and her way of speaking and thinking, are neither internally consistent nor even possible. That’s true, but of itself wouldn’t bother me – I just didn’t find her very interesting. The plot was fairly obvious and contained few surprises, and I thought it dragged on and didn’t to me seem a very subtle book.

But I can see that many many people very much enjoyed the book, and there were positive things in it – some of the descriptions and phrases were clever and there were some good moments. I liked this about Grace’s mother:
“Fine,” she said, after a moment. “Don’t mind me. You do whatever you think is best.”
“Fine,” said my father. “We’ll go.”
My mother looked disappointed. She was used to her words being escorted by a translation.

And the clothes were good, as in the scene above, with its view of mourning. And always glad to use some photos from the Free Vintage Knitting Pattern site – there are many treasures there, but the poncho pictures are particularly good.
In fact, for years I have been looking for the book I canTrouble with goats 3 illustrate with this (right), the splendidly-named Lady-Man Poncho Skirt. Still searching. (And there is a tremendous gaucho in a poncho in this entry, on Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle.)


Last week, at the Fashion and Fiction event featured on the blog here, the question of Clothkits came up: a certain kind of sewing package with a very distinctive look, forever associated with the 70s and 80s. Although not mentioned in this book (the parents involved would not have had time for that) those distinctive Clothkits pictures certainly made me think of the girls in the book.

 
trouble with goats


More books about 1976 – Maggie O’Farrell, William Boyd, and Claire Fuller.




















14 comments:

  1. I agree: children as narrators or even from their POV in fiction are difficult and hardly anyone does it well. One writer that I think pulls it off is Catherine O'Flynn in What was Lost. Have you read it?

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    1. I have been meaning to read What Was Lost for ages - with you and Margot both recommending I must just get on with it.

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  2. You're so right about child narrators, Moira. It's extremely hard to get their voices right. The premise of this one sounds really interesting, so I can see why you were expecting to like it a lot. Oh, and I echo Christine: do read What Was Lost if you haven't. It's an outstanding book, in my opinion.

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    1. I can't stand up against the two of you! I have just downloaded What Was Lost... look forward to reading it. There are so few good ones.

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  3. Echoes of the funeral scene in Saffy's Angel that you blogged about, no?

    Just trying to think of decent child narrators. There's Christmas with the Savages, of course - which is pretty good, and I know you loved that one.

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    1. Oh yes, excellent comparison. And yes, absolutely loved the child in Savages. Now trying to think. Scout in Mockingbird I guess. I just had to check whether Harriet the Spy is narrated by her, but it is not. Still thinking...

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  4. Not heard of this one - the Durrells sprung to mind on reading the title. Probably not my cuppa...

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    1. No, probably not, though it is a crime story. I see what you mean about the Durrells...

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  5. I too am a huge fan of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. To be honest, your description of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep makes the book sound very appealing to me. Dunno why, perhaps I'm perverse.

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    1. Very pleased to find another ICTC fan! And give this one a go - it didn't hit the spot for me, but I can totally see that others will like it.

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  6. Arggghhh! The poncho! The only person who ever really looked cool in one was Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name, and he had to try really hard. Mind you, I remember a Stephen King short story where a beautiful female vampire turns up wearing a poncho, so some people must like them. Maybe it's just me...

    Getting a convincing child narrator is very hard to do. THE RISING OF THE MOON by Gladys Mitchell is told from the point of view of a 13-year old boy and is absolutely convincing. The perspectives of a six year old, or a ten year old, or a thirteen year old are quite different from one another, and from an adult. It's hard to explain how and why, but you know when that perspective is wrong. I think that it's quite a talent for an author to be able to do this.

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    1. Yes, Clint kept popping up when I was looking at images, and he IS the only person who can style it out successfully.
      I've been trying to think of more child narrators that I like, and it is very hard. Rising of the Moon isn't one of my favourites of Mitchell's but that's not because of the narration which I remember admiring. Still thinking... Perhaps a list should follow.

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  7. Ponchos are a great wrap, too bad they don't look as nice as they feel. I will pass on this book for now but keep it in mind.

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    1. they were briefly very much in fashion when I was young, I think they swing in and out every few years. But another of the things this author gets slightly wrong is the reference above to the little girl not being able to get her arms out - that's never a problem with ponchos in fact.

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