This intriguingly titled début novel tells the story of ten year old Grace and Tilly, who set out, at the beginning of the summer holidays, to find Mrs. Creasy, a neighbour who has disappeared inexplicably. The setting is the sweltering summer of 1976 and as a result the whole street is languishing on deckchairs, pottering in enervated fashion in the garden, wiped out by the heat, yet able to keep a watchful eye on the girls and who is going in and out of each other’s door. Soon after the girls embark on their enquiry, it becomes apparent that several neighbours link Mrs. C’s disappearance to her discovery of some earlier secret, and it is the uncovering of this earlier secret which becomes the primary focus for the reader.
The story is told initially from Grace’s point of view, affording some amusing takes on the adult world, as well as lots of charmingly authentic dialogue between Grace and Tilly. However this narrative voice gradually cedes to the voices of the adult neighbours in the street. More information about the earlier event seeps out and the novel begins to take on a darker tone as themes of victimisation, belonging, collective and individual responsibility come to the fore. At the same time, the individual adult voices enable us to learn more about the characters, their past, their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, which go some way to explain their behaviour. I found myself ricocheting between censorious horror at attitudes expressed and, particularly with the character of Sheila Dakin, empathy for the miseries they had suffered in the past.
The writer’s playful enjoyment of language comes out in her deft use of imagery and I loved its location in the suburban everyday, as in ‘ by Thursday, her name was being passed over garden fences and threaded along the queue at shop counters’. Occasionally I found the imagery a little clunky and distracting from the narrative: ‘no matter how straight she keeps her arms and how carefully she holds them away from her body, they chime like church bells ringing out her failings ‘. She employs zeugma to great and witty effect: ‘ Dorothy Forbes dressed in alternating layers of taupe and concern’ and I loved Dorothy- again- appearing in ‘a flurry of beige’.
Once or twice this richly imaginative language appears in sections narrated by Grace and slightly jars coming improbably from the consciousness of a ten year old. I also found Keithie’s utterances implausibly articulate and complete for a six year old. And there were some anachronisms in the dialogue- I’m pretty sure we didn’t use ‘rubbish’ adjectivally in 1976 and surely people have only been using ‘tell me about it’ in the past decade? This last carp simply highlights the challenges of writing fiction set in the last 50 years- much harder to ensure consistent authenticity than if set 100 years ago, with no oldsters around to set you right!
I’m curious about too about the choice of 1976 for the setting of the novel-I remember it well from my own youth as a summer of sunburn from strawberry picking in East Anglia and falling asleep exhausted in the strong afternoon sun. Of course the remorseless heat makes people do irrational things and the street at times attributes Mrs. Creasy’s disappearance to a touch of heatstroke. The heat also facilitates characters being outside, in the garden, on the street, enabling observations and casual conversations to contribute to the build up of the plot. I guess the distance of 40 years is close enough to be familiar to some of us and yet far enough away for us to reflect on how and whether the world and human behaviour has changed. And the novel does show some truly nasty sides of human behaviour with even the nicest characters capable of hurtful and self interested behaviour.
And hence the title: the girls are not only on a mission to find Mrs. Creasy, but have decided as well to look for Jesus- for everyone needs support and protection, everyone needs a shepherd. The girls are aware of the biblical story of sorting the sheep from the goats- the sheep being the pure and innocent destined for heaven, while the goats are the badduns cast aside and en route for the other place. But the plot suggests that it’s not so easy to divide human beings into sheep and goats- we’re certainly all capable of nasty goatish behaviour. And prepared to follow one another blindly and unthinkingly like sheep. And who does Mrs. Creasy remind us of, as we learn from the neighbours’ narratives how she has quietly and unobtrusively offered them friendship, kindness, advice, understanding and forgiveness?
This is a cleverly plotted novel with at least as many layers to it as the custard creams consumed by the plateful on most social occasions. At times I felt stifled by the action being confined to a single street and occasionally found individual characters unconvincing, but, like Dürrenmatt’s ‘The Visit’, on a similar theme, it is the interaction between the individual and the group which is interesting and compelling.This is a great début from Joanna Cannon and an excellent and thought provoking read.