Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

While this is an astronomy blog, from time to time I write book reviews:

What a strange name for a book, and one that right away causes association with steak. The reference becomes clear on page 117, and it's from the Gospel of Matthew actually, a parable about Jesus differentiating between goats and sheep. The sheep helped him and the goats didn't. In the Gospel it's a simple differentiation between good and bad, but in the book the division is slightly different and not so dichotomous. In the English language sometimes the epithet ‘goat’ is used for someone falsely accused (scapegoat) while sheep are those who keep in a herd. In the Gemara (Shabbat folio 77 [= in Hebrew gematria ‘goat’] page B) a distinction between sheep and goats can be found as well. Rabbi Zeira asks why when there is a mixed herd of goats and sheep, goats go first, and he receives answers regarding the difference between goats and sheep. Once you arrive at the allegory and apply it to the book, the book's title becomes much clearer. Mrs. Creasy has disappeared and everyone in the gray, sleepy English avenue's homes just talk about it but do nothing about it. Those who are trying to do something are Grace and Tilly, two young girls who decide to look for Mrs. Creasy, but in a development reminiscent of Descartes they come to the conclusion that in order to find her one first needs to find God.

The story is set deeply in the milieu of the Seventies – with which I had no problem, I'm familiar with the songs and bands mentioned – but it is set deep in the England of the Seventies and in that regard it was more problematic for me. Names of unfamiliar people, TV shows and foods made for some difficulty reading the book (the author released the first chapter on her website in English and I attempted to start reading there). The translation overcomes all these problems with great finesse. At the end of the book there's a sweets catalog of all the foods that appear in the book. The names of songs, bands and other English things were not translated but rather transliterated and even sometimes left in the original English. A brilliant decision of the translator, Shai Sendik! The reading flowed easily and despite the fact that in my day they used to translate the names of foreign songs and bands into Hebrew on the radio, I would have been seriously bummed if they'd had translated the title of “Save Your Kisses For Me” into Hebrew.

I'm already used to books published by Sendik being good and interesting, and so is this book, but every time I get another surprise. The surprise this time is the publication date of the book, the same day the book is offered at stores abroad. Here is a chance for once for the Israeli literature lover to read a book when it is just published and not only to join the trend of a successful book, but to be part of causing the trend that makes the book successful. And how did they knew at Sendik about this book? By good ole' word of mouth. Another author (Carys Bray) whose book was published by Sendik saw the manuscript, became enthusiastic, and recommended it. The result is in front of you.

The choice of the Seventies is not accidental and main plot is at the time of the great drought of 1976. As an Israeli I did not attach much importance to this date, and the temperatures in England at the time were those that occur in Israel already in April; but in Britain this heatwave was accompanied by dozens of days without rain, with a prohibition on watering lawns, with desiccation of rivers and by a necessity of water discipline for the first time in memory there, causing people to “go crazy and lose it.” As a psychiatrist by profession, Cannon knows what causes people to “lose it” and what they can do while in that state. In this way, the heat wave functions as a backdrop for the book. And the people of The Avenue indeed go crazy – because of the heat as well but mostly because of the disappearance of Mrs. Creasy. Grace and Tilly conduct an extensive, naive investigation; however with their innocent questions, they manage to open Pandora's box, revealing dark, difficult secrets in The Avenue and create a storyline paralleling the present-axis moving forward with the past-axis moving backward. The police are investigating the disappearance as well, and the neighbors are worried that the police might decide to investigate a decade-old case that everybody just wants to forget about. From conversations between the neighbors we learn that Mrs. Creasy would talk with everyone and had heard all kinds of things from everyone. The neighbors are worried. What does she know? And even worse – who is she going to tell?

As the “investigation” progresses, we find it difficult to decide who is a sheep and who is a goat, a conclusion reached by the girls themselves as well. This is actually the “trouble” that appears in the book's title. We tend to mostly divide the world into sheep and wolves, where distinguishing between the two might be easier; but distinguishing between goats and sheep is a more difficult problem. The book is loaded with Christian symbolism. Indeed, the girls get their first piece of advice from the priest. The search for God is always a religious matter (and reminiscent of the previous book published by Sendik – “A Song for Issy Bradley"), and the girls have a naive faith, the innocence of sheep – or do they? Tilly is certainly a sheep; her character is rather flat, the innocent good girl, always agreeing, always saying yes, always convince-able, always wanting to please, always doing what Grace suggests. No wonder she's the one who finds Jesus, because she's sort of like his reincarnation . But what about Grace? Here we already have a dilemma, since her character develops in the narrative as she's a girl on the verge of adolescence. Sometimes she is pleased to be the older one, the leader, the one whose words Tilly thirstily drinks up, and sometimes Tilly seems to her a little too young and childish, and she looks admiringly at neighboring sixteen year old Lisa, who in turn barely favors her with a glance. There are additional symbolic names and themes. I'm not even sure they all are meant and possibly exist only in my imagination. And what about the adults? Who among them is a goat and who's a sheep? This you'll have to find out yourself while reading, and the answers are ambiguous.

There is a dark side to the book, but there is also joie de vivre and childhood innocence and a lot of humor. A particularly surreal chapter describes the transition of an Indian family, the Kapoor family, into the neighborhood and their cool reception by the residents who aren't “racist” God-forbid, but in fact they are. The name of the woman of the new family is Manish and I immediately thought of the British mirror artist of Indian origin Anish Kapoor. His mirrors are works of art that show us ordinary things in a different way. A mirror of his is installed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and on a partly cloudy day you can circle it for hours. The book's Kapoor family is also used in the book as a mirror that reveals the racism inherent in people.

The book is left open-ended. I felt slightly like something is missing. The reader expects something to happen, everything leads to it but that something doesn't happen. Cannon leaves the ending to the reader's imagination. One can imagine an ending of “and they all lived happily ever after”, but it wouldn't be right. Things will certainly not go back to the way they were before. Forgotten secrets came up again, old sediments were formed anew and we leave The Avenue's residents to deal with their fate, which won't necessarily be pleasant.

Joanna Cannon
Harper Collins - 2016

Thanks to Shai Sendik who translated the original review from English and was kind enough to allow me to publish it.