I’m sure readers will have gathered that Naomi Ishiguro is the daughter of Kazuo by now, although that’s not the reason I wanted to read Common Ground. She was once a bookseller at my lovely local indie, Mr B’s, which piqued my interest, that and a glowing quote from Rowan Hisayo Buchanan adorning its rather attractive jacket. Ishiguro’s debut follows the friendship between two boys who meet one afternoon on the common of a small Surrey town, each very different than the other.
Thirteen-year-old Stanley races off after school every day, escaping to Newford Common. He’s a scholarship boy at the local private school, constantly picked on by his snobbish peers. When the chain comes off his secondhand bike, Stanley struggles to repair it and a passerby steps in. Charlie is older than Stanley and decidedly cooler. Working at sixteen, having dropped out of school, he’s curious about the world and interested in history. These two hit it off, despite their differences, meeting on the common regularly. When Charlie takes him home to meet his family, Stanley is introduced to an entirely different way of life from the one he knows at home. Charlie is a Traveller, and Stanley can’t help but romanticise what he sees as a warm welcoming family so different from the quiet desperation of his own widowed mother. Charlie encourages Stanley to stand up to the bullies, telling him stories of workers’ struggles, sowing the seed of an interest that will eventually see Stanley take up a journalism degree. Things get out of hand when they go on a rampage, inspired by the legendary Guildford Boys who took revenge against their oppressors, which ends with Stanley dangerously ill in hospital. Almost a decade since they first met, their paths cross again: Stanley is now a confident young man, and it’s Charlie who’s beset by troubles, reeling from crisis to crisis.
Showing up for people even when a huge part of you might want to close your eyes, and retreat back into comfort and wilful blindness. Showing up for people not out of curiosity or pity but because of friendship, conducted on solidly equal terms.
Ishiguro switches perspectives between Stanley and Charlie bringing them together neatly at the end, illustrating the gulf separating these two who nevertheless find a way to remain friends, while exploring themes of inequality and racism. Stanley’s section is the more convincing, astutely capturing the constant anxiety of the bullied. It’s a tremendously hopeful novel: there’s a scene in a pub towards the end when a small group of fascists are thrown out to the cheers of other drinkers which warmed my heart, although I’m a wee bit too cynical to believe in it. I’d love someone to put me right and tell me they’ve witnessed something similar. That said, the central theme of Ishiguro’s novel is one I hold dear: there’s almost always common ground to be found between us no matter how different we are. A throughly enjoyable read with its heart in the right place.
Tinder Press: London 9781472273291 432 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)