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THREE BAGS FULL
by Leonie Swann
Doubleday Canada, June 2007
352 pages
$29.95 CDN
ISBN: 038566379X


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Somewhere in Ireland on a hillock near the sea safely grazed a flock of woolly sheep, tended by their shepherd, George. George, a man who seemed to prefer their company to that of humans, looked after them well, reading to them daily, tending to their ailments, and promising them all a trip to Europe one day. But then George turns up dead, a spade driven through his heart, and the flock, bereft, decide to find out who did it.

As detectives, sheep have several limitations. They have, for instance, notoriously poor memories, though luckily Mopple the Whale, a very stout ram, never forgets anything he sees. They are nervous, distractable essentially herd animals engaged in a pursuit that demands individual initiative. But they care very much about George and have among them some strong characters Miss Maple, the cleverest sheep in Glenkill, and perhaps the world; Othello, a black ram with four horns and a breadth of worldly experience, and Melmoth, the ram who did what no sheep ever does: he left the flock.

As a group, they all have an exquisite sense of smell, which allows them to sniff out emotions that the humans they investigate try to hide. As well, no one ever guards his tongue because sheep may be listening, so they hear much that is useful in their deductions.

The nightly readings with which George used to favour the flock have served them well, sharpening their curiosity, broadening their experience of human thought processes, and encouraging metaphysical speculation about the nature of God, evil, and everything else. Their conclusions are often comically wide of the mark, but they hit the target often enough; they are certainly at least as clever as your average pub philosopher. They are bright enough, for example, to recognize that what is before them is a literary as much as an existential problem: "'We must find out what sort of story this is,' said Cordelia. The others looked at her curiously. 'I mean, every story is about different things,' Cordelia explained patiently . . . The book about the diseases of the sheep is about the diseases of the sheep. The detective story was about clues. Once we know what sort of a story this is we'll know what to look out for.'"

Whether the author has quite decided what sort of story she wants to tell is not altogether certain. Swann charts a delicate course between a highly comic animal fable on the one hand and an ovine version of the film BABE on the other. Why on earth a German doctoral candidate in English literature should have chosen to write about a flock of Irish sheep detectives never becomes fully clear. As crime fiction, it lacks both tension and pace we proceed at the speed of a grazing sheep. Still, the book has an odd charm and is certainly original. If a disguised basil-addicted T Rex can become a cult favourite, there is no reason why these sweet and earnest sheep might not similarly find a devoted following.

THREE BAGS FULL was written originally in German and has been translated into a number of languages. The present version, by Anthea Bell, is fluent, easy, and transparent.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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