published 2016, set in 1976
[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.”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.
“Fine,” said my father. “We’ll go.”
My mother looked disappointed. She was used to her words being escorted by a translation.
In fact, for years I have been looking for the book I can 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.
More books about 1976 – Maggie O’Farrell, William Boyd, and Claire Fuller.