Child narrators can, for me at least, often be problematic in adult fiction. Too often the voice fails to convince being either too knowing or irritatingly faux-naïve. It was therefore a great pleasure to read not one, but two fabulous novels this month that featured child narrators in a convincing manner.
Joanna Cannon’s ‘The Trouble with Goats and Sheep’ has been on my TBR pile for a while. I first heard about it from Simon Savidge over at Savidge Reads because, to be honest, he couldn’t stop raving about on both his blog and on The Readers. The novel also got featured in a number of Best of 2016 lists – quite a feat for a book that was published only a few weeks into the year. And, to be fair, I did try to read it when it first came out but it was one of those cases of ‘right book, wrong time’ and I put it back on the shelf about 60 pages in. This month was, however, very much the right time to be reading ‘Goats and Sheep’, which is set in the heatwave of the summer of 1976. So one sunny day, I picked it up and started again.
‘The Trouble with Goats and Sheep’ is the story of 10-year-old Grace and her best friend Tilly. It is also the story of their parents and neighbours on The Avenue and the surrounding streets and provides a fascinating insight into insular communities from a child’s eye-view. At the start of the novel, Grace’s neighbour Mrs Creasy has gone missing, an act that causes some consternation amongst her fellow residents who are worried that she may have discovered the truth behind dark events of one winter’s night a decade before. Acting on some well-intentioned advice from the local vicar, Grace and Tilly begin a quest to find their missing neighbour and, in doing so, begin to uncover the secrets that the other residents have worked so hard to bury.
Although not told entirely from Grace’s perspective (there are switches to some of the adult characters, as well as flashbacks to 1967), it is Grace’s voice that really stood out for me within this book. Although a somewhat precocious 10-year-old, Grace was entirely authentic to me being perfectly balanced between childlike innocence and the increasing awareness of teenage years. And the old adage ‘out of the mouths of babes’ proves to ring true as Grace and Tilly confront the underlying prejudice and pettiness of their small community with an unknowing wisdom. To say more about the story would be to spoil the enjoyment of the narrative, which benefits from a creeping sense of dread as the reader comes to the realisation of what happened in 1967 well before Grace and Tilly get a true sense of events. This was however, one of my favourite reads of the year so far and an extremely impressive debut.
I had a few more problems with my second book, ‘Foxlowe’ by Eleanor Wassberg, another debut and another one that I read thanks to Simon Savidge (it was his Litsy feed that did it this time – the book has to have one of the most gorgeous covers published this year). Set in a commune on the edge of the Staffordshire Moorlands, this is the story of Green, her ‘sister’ Blue and their peripatetic childhood with Founders, Richard, Freya, Libby and the rest of The Family, in the apparent idyll of Foxlowe. As with most communal idylls in novels however, it isn’t long before the reader realises that there is something rotten in the heart of Foxlowe. Green and Blue are affected by The Bad, which can only be cured by the light of the double sunset on the Solstice and which, according to Freya, is growing within them.
Once again, it was the voice that really stood out for me in ‘Foxlowe’. Alternating between Green’s childhood in Foxlowe and her teenage years when tragedy has driven her into the outside world, Green’s voice is by turns confidential, assured, insular and creepy and it does a fantastic job of conveying the dark and gothic tone of this twisted novel. Some reviewers have been irritated by the cadence of Green’s voice – the inclusion of many capitalised words and baby-like language as with The Bad, Leavers, The Family and The Founders – but I found this convincing in a child who has grown up without any form of formal education and, arguably, without any education of note at all. I also found that the use of these words, which are imbued with so much meaning for Green and her ‘siblings’ but foreign to the reader, added to the sense of the uncanny that runs throughout the book.
Whilst the narration was accomplished and erred on the right side of creepy, I did however have major issues with the plot. Without giving away major spoilers, all I will say is quite how none of the other adults realise that Freya is as mad as a box of frogs baffles me. Whilst I get that these are ‘adults’ who have deliberately chosen to walk away from the responsibilities of everyday life, the fact that they would wilfully choose to ignore child cruelty on the scale sometimes shown by Freya just didn’t wash. Whilst Freya is a truly hateful character throughout, she isn’t violent or dangerous (at least not in the beginning) and seems instead to operate through a mixture of fear, anger and spite. So how does she exert so much power and influence through the commune? And whilst I get that Freya evidently has severe mental health issues (although enough with the ‘evil’ characters having mental health problems already please! I could write a whole other blog post on that one), that alone just didn’t seem to justify her malicious hatred of Green and Blue. I read a brief but enlightening interview with Eleanor Wassberg in NewBooks Magazine in which she talked about the characters’ lack of agency due to ‘shoal’ mentality – the idea of a communal mania. And whilst this can and does happen in real life (take instances of mass suicide within cults for example), it usually has a charismatic central figure at the heart of it. For me, Freya was just not charismatic enough – I didn’t buy into the fact that all of the other characters would have bought into her hippie shtick and I think it led to an increasing disbelief with the events of the novel.
That aside however, I do think ‘Foxlowe’ is an accomplished debut and I would definitely recommend it to fans of the Victorian gothic, although I would add in a trigger warning for scenes of child abuse. Wassberg is clearly a very accomplished writer and, whilst I had issues with the plotting, I do think that the compellingly eerie quality of Green’s voice resonates with the reader long after you turn the final page. It was also nice to see my home county featured in a novel – although it is the setting for a cult so…..maybe not!
So if you’re looking for convincing young narrators, you can add both ‘The Trouble with Goats and Sheep’ and ‘Foxlowe’ to your reading lists! If you have read either book, please let me know your thoughts by dropping a comment below or over on Twitter @amyinstaffs or Litsy @ShelfofUnreadBooks. As always, I’d love to know what you’re reading or if you have any more recommendations for adult books with child narrators that you think I’d enjoy. And, as always, until the next time….
Happy Reading! x