With her debut novel, about an unlikely friendship across a divide that society has imposed, Naomi Ishiguro (daughter of Nobel winning author Kazuo Ishiguro) shows that the apple hasn't fallen very far from the tree - but it has definitely rolled off in a different direction. Her call for tolerance, acceptance and understanding is especially relevant in the post-Trump/Brexit landscape in which she writes.
The first half of Common Ground is told from the perspective of Stan - a bookish teen grappling with the recent death of his father. His mother has moved them to the 'unremarkable’ town of Newford in Surrey for a fresh start. Avoiding her son and conversations about their loss is her method of coping. She puts in long, exhausting shifts as a nurse at the local hospital, and sleeps the day away. A concerned but ‘weary’ parent, she seems not to notice Stan’s intense loneliness and the terrible bullying he’s being subjected to at school by the more privileged kids. ‘I never raised you to be cruel’, she says, during an argument with him. ‘You didn’t raise me to be anything’, he retorts, ‘You're always at work’.
Stan desperately needs a friend, and he finds one on Goshawk Common where he meets the confident and street-smart Charlie - a few years older and his complete opposite. Charlie has an innate curiosity about the world and a refreshing way of looking at things: ‘Never just rely on what people tell you’, he says, ‘you’ve got to go out and investigate. Go to the library. Read books’. They continue to meet up on the common and trade stories about their lives. Charlie encourages Stan to stick up for himself. ‘Nae pasaran’, he tells him. It becomes their rallying cry. There’s something different about his new friend that Stan can’t quite put his finger on though. It’s only when racial slurs like ‘gypsy’ and ‘pikey’ get hurled in their direction that he realises what it is.
The extent of Stan’s naivety about the world and it’s divisions becomes clear the more he interacts with Charlie’s family, who are wary of outsiders but welcome him tentatively. Their bustling business is in stark contrast to his more solitary existence. They become a distraction for him: ‘a way to step outside the endless maze that life felt like these days, an alternative to both the unspoken sadness of home and the daily battle of school.’ His mother disapproves of course, ‘a friend like that will ruin your life’, she warns. Is she right? The two have found common ground, but can their friendship withstand the deeply ingrained prejudices of society and the expectations of both their communities?
The second half, probably the stronger of the two, is told by Charlie. It’s 2012 and he’s now living in London. Unhappily married and verging on alcoholism, he’s at his lowest ebb when he bumps into his old friend for the first time in 9 years; ‘one beautiful piece of dumb luck in this washed out let-down of a world’, he calls it, but they struggle to relate to one another now. It seems that time and circumstance have driven a wedge between them. Now a university student and a cub reporter, Stan is well-intentioned but only beginning to open his eyes to how easy he has it compared to Charlie, who is on the poverty line and discriminated against both at work and on the streets.
Ishiguro writes Charlie’s self-deprecating, worn-out inner monologue particularly well. In his despair, he’s being drawn back into the one of the traditions of his culture that he never took to, accepting a fight with a rival to defend his disabled brother. The story feels as though it’s building towards this event as it’s dramatic, perhaps even tragic, conclusion, but it passes by without much of a stir.
The writer chooses more of a cheery finale, but perhaps one it’s one that’s best suited to what has come before, a sweet story about a friendship that endures over time and against the odds.