The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon – a Book Review

Well this was an absolute joy of a book. Set in the heatwave of 1976 on a claustrophic middle class housing estate, we meet the neighbours who live in The Avenue through the eyes of two young girls who decide their summer holiday project will be ‘looking for God’.

Firstly the era was captured perfectly: angel delight, sherbet liquorice, Jackie magazine, hair bobbles. The cuture: the flurry of anxiety when an indian family move in to the street, the ‘keeping up of appearances’ and the heat.

The main protagonist is called Grace (of course she is, ‘grace’ is always the catalyst for real transformation. Look out for several other names deliciously layered with extra meanings) and she has a younger and touchingly vulnerable friend called Tilly whose innocence reminded me of ‘Anna’ from Mister God this is Anna (published in 1974). The story begins with the girls’ concern about a missing person, Mrs Creasey whose disappeareance brings out all the hidden secrets which resulted from shameful event 11 years earlier. This event, the story of which only unfolds slowly turns out to be cause of deep hostility in this tight-knit community towards one person in The Avenue, the loner, Walter Bishop.

Is Walter Bishop dangerous, creepy or merely misunderstood? The author is clevererly asking the reader to form their own judgement as the story unfolds.

The power of shame and the making of judgements about other people, the shifting of blame and the power of prejudice are all themes which are creatively explored. But this is not a heavy or dull book and the moment when Jesus appears in the drainpipe is wonderously hilarious.

At the start there are a lot of characters to get your head around and map of the street with who lives where might have helped but stick with it, it’s a very entertaining and satisfying read.

No plot spoilers, I promise but just one final comment on the title. Just what IS the problem with goats and sheep? Joanna Cannon knows her bible stories well. In Matthew’s gospel (chapter 25) Jesus tells a story about how God will one day separate the goats from the sheep. But if you’ve never seen a middle eastern flock of goats and sheep then the chances are you have completely missed the point of this story.

In northern Europe you should have no problem telling a sheep from a goat (see the picture of a very obvious goat on the front cover). But in Palestine, I promise you, the difference is not so obvious. You have to look very closely to see which is which. I know, I’ve been there and seen them. That’s the whole point. The problem with goats and sheep is that we think we know who is who, who is good, who is bad, who is ‘in’, who is ‘out’ but the whole point of the story Jesus told is that we need to leave judgement to God because we are so riddled with assumptions and prejudices we cannot see other people with either accuracy or the necessary compassion. And what criteria does God use to separate the goats and the sheep? God separates humans on the basis of how they have treated their fellow human beings. Shockingly Matthew’s gospel says nothing about that ‘magical moment of mental assent’ held so dear as the ticket to heaven by so many. God hasn’t recorded your conversion experience on some heavenly database, so that no matter how obnoxious a person you are, so long as you once said the sinner’s prayer/got baptised/ spoken in tongues (delete as per your brand of Christiainity) you are IN!

Grace is the truth of a shockingly low mininum entry requirement. Does God accept everyone by grace? Personally I believe so. So does it matter to God what kind of people we are and how we treat others? Yes I believe it does. Does your eternal destiny hang on the first or the second of those answers?

Do scumbags get in? Now there’s a question!

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