How I came to buy this book
I bought The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon at a book reading event that was held at my local Waterstones. Joanna was interviewed by Tom Bromley who Teaches a Faber Academy course that Joanna attended.
The event was a great opportunity to hear about how Joanna had progressed through the publishing process and what inspired her to write her first book. Events of this kind are immensely interesting to me as a reader and a writer. I also found the event interesting as it was the first time I have met other book bloggers. So, Hi to Shaz and Jackie Law at NeverImitate. I’m on a slightly different quest to them and am obviously not as experienced in the ways of book blogging at the new book end of the market! (See my book list for details…)
Anyway, I came away from the evening having had a great time and with a signed copy of the book in my hand. I had not read any reviews and barely knew the synopsis. Everything I knew about the book I had gleaned from the hour or so of the reading event. I tend to prefer things like this as I can make my own mind up without other people’s opinion getting in the way. Without further ado, here is some of my thoughts and opinions on The Trouble with Goats and Sheep!
The book and Me
The book starts on 21st June 1976, which happens to be only a few weeks after my birthday. I know everyone says that the summer of 1976 was hot, but it was great to read something set in THAT summer. Chapters in the book are dated, and this triggered thoughts of my Mum and Dad doing what you do with a baby. There are so many events that occur concurrently across the world and you only ever see the ones that directly affect you. As I was having my nappy changed, events similar to those in the book were happening in another place under the same baking sun.
I will also mention here that I really liked the blue of the cover. It fits the book perfectly and because it’s a hardback, you see an edge of colour in your peripheral vision as you start and end each page. It feels like the colour of the summer of 1976…
Tense and Person Prose…
First off in the prose section I would like to mention tense and person! I really liked the way that Joanna has written events in the present of the book in past tense, third person. Memory chapters are written in present tense first person. This works really really well because memories are always internal and subjective, and you remember what you experienced (first person present tense.) It is such a powerful tool that I am amazed I have not seen it in any other book, at least I don’t remember reading it… This tense and person change also provided a very obvious but non intrusive way to stay in touch with what part of the story you were reading 1967 or 1976.
During the reading event, Joanna talked a little about “tight” prose. I also had a short conversation about it with her as she was signing my book. I used to wish that I could write a book with an absolute minimum number of words, to evoke a reader’s own imagination and to intrude on that as minimally as possible to direct the story. This is of course a fool’s errand. To take so much away from a story misses the beauty of the prose that keeps you reading and keeps invoking similes in your memory.
Joanna has succeeded in her aim, and I found the writing to be relaxed, effortless and still succinct. At the same time it was also very evocative. There were however times when I think the prose was almost too full or too efficient. I didn’t always get time to savour the depth of what was being painted for me.
This tightness of prose also led to some interesting descriptive passages. Some brilliantly realised:
On Libraries “It smelled of unturned pages and unseen adventures, and on every shelf were people I had yet to meet, and places I had yet to visit.”
And in some cases, slightly odd:
“…the thread of the carpet, worn down by heavy conversation.”
How does conversation ware down a carpet??
Anyway, the odd oddity aside, Joanna’s writing style was brilliant and beautiful. The whole book is told in a way that allows the reader to pour their own experiences into it. A lot of references don’t need to be interpreted, but depth is provided if you take your time. It’s like when “Ron swears” in Harry Potter. My son at 8 had a completely different lexicon for this and a different expectation of hour Ron would use his.
I had some trouble sticking with this book at times, and it took me a while to realise why. This is a brilliant book but it is not an easy book to read. I have already said that the writing is very good, and the general themes are all well realised and well paced, so what is my problem? The book is written around people and relationships and how they react to various problems for example; marriage issues, heat, the miss-understanding of children and people who can not accept differences in race and personality. This means that there is a lot of unspoken suspicion and social menace throughout the book. The reality of people I suppose! I found this tension quite hard to read for any length of time, even though I was enjoying the main thrust of the story.
Then, from nowhere Jesus arrives (He moves in mysterious ways!) and it was lovely to read this section because everyone pulled together. Well, almost everyone. I’m not going to go into the religious aspect of the book too much. It’s there, it’s a device and a good one at that. All to soon Jesus has gone and the tension returns.
Anyway, suffice to say that it was the tension that I was not comfortable with. It was definitely a tension that needed to be there for the story, and as I said, it was a story worth reading.