Goshawk Common, Newford, Surrey. Not the most remarkable expanse of open country, scrubby grass and tumbling hillside in the south of England, just as Newford probably wasn’t the most remarkable town.
I fell in love with Common Ground and Ishiguro’s writing from page one.
The only weird part, for me, was the name of the protagonist in the first section – Stan – the same name as my dad. Every time young Stan jumped on his bike to ride to the common to visit his friend Charlie, all I could see was a superimposed image of my dad’s face from one of his childhood photos, riding around Newford. It was disconcerting and made it hard for me to stay in the 1990’s (where the first half of the book was set). I kept reverting back to the 1950’s when my dad would have been 13.
As time went on, I realised that the first part of the book was actually set in 2003 (but it still felt like 1995 to me). The jump forward then took us to 2012. Initially I didn’t feel like this was a big enough leap forward. We all learn a lot about the world we live in and make some big changes in our lives between early teens and early twenties, but the big psychological growth takes much longer and happens after all the young adult survival stuff has been got through.
However, it was the messy, muddling through young adult stuff that Ishiguro wanted to show us.
That stage of life when we’re full of brash sureness about our new adult status, trying it on the see how it fits. Getting used to the idea of thinking about ourselves as adults and not kids. It’s an age of bluffing our way through, hoping it will feel real one day. The mistakes and choices that we make at this time, that can have profound effects on the rest of our lives, but all we can see is the here and now. A time full of the possibilities of the future, even if we cannot imagine our life beyond 25. Or as Michelle de Kretser so elegantly describes it in On Shirley Hazzard, as the period ‘when the self is adult yet porous.’
In Common Ground the first part of the story is told through Stan’s eyes – a thirteen year grieving for his recently deceased father, being bullied at his new scholarship school. The second part of the story (in 2012) is told through the eyes of his sixteen year old friend, Charlie, now in his mid-20’s, newly married and struggling with the demands of work, the loss of a baby and living in London. Much of the optimism and hopefulness of Charlie’s teen years has been eroded by blue collar work, the reality of paying bills and being responsible for the emotional wellbeing of another. Social pressures and racial prejudices have undermined his confidence.
Common Ground is also the story of a Traveller.
I saw a few Gypsy’s when I was in the UK back in 1991, but I knew almost nothing about their history or their experience of living in the UK or the politics and social undercurrents surrounding them. Ishiguro explores a number of these issues through the story of Charlie and Stan’s friendship.
‘I’m a Gypsy, a Traveller, yeah. I’m Romany. But it’s kind of… not the most important thing about me. I’m mainly just a person.’
Their friendship is constantly under pressure, from family and society, due to their perceived social differences. Yet, there is no denying, that their friendship provides both of them with much needed connection and camaraderie.
There’s a rather wonderful scene in a pub towards the end of the story that shows what generosity of spirit and empathy can do. It is this hopefulness that lifts the story out of the gloom of post-Brexit England.
Common Ground is a story about friendship, tolerance and the need for a kinder world. I like to believe, like Ishiguro, that despite our differences, we can all find common ground and solidarity.
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.
In case you were wondering, yes, Naomi is the daughter of Kazuo and Lorna Ishiguro. She prefers not to trade off her father’s celebrity but it is difficult not to make comparisons.
They both share a class consciousness and they both write about the world from the viewpoint of being an outsider. Naomi’s story moved at a faster clip than most of Kazuo’s work, but it enjoyed a familiar interior voice. Unlike Kazuo’s usual fare, Common Ground is a contemporary story, with contemporary themes. Naomi’s story is grounded in our modern world with real-life issues, happening right now. And like her father, she uses writing to come to terms with the issues that call her name.
Naomi Ishiguro is a writer to keep an eye on, in her own right.
- This is Naomi’s second book. Her first, Escape Routes, published last year, is a collection of short stories.
- Kazuo’s recent novel, Klara and the Sun started as a story that he told Naomi when she was growing up. Back then it was called Merm and the Sun, short for mermaid, which was Naomi’s childhood nickname (source).
- After finishing uni, Naomi moved to Bath and worked in Mr B’s Emporium bookshop.
- Most of Common Ground was written in public libraries – London Library, British Library and Jubilee Library in Brighton.
- “I was thinking about who has the right to occupy space; going to a lot of libraries and thinking that these are one of the last bastions of public spaces where you can just go without having to explain yourself or buy something. Then the referendum happened and it seemed like the Leave campaign was saying that certain people didn’t have the right to be here. I wanted to write a novel about that struggle to find a place and assert your right to be here.”
That people have to keep doing right by people….That it’s not enough, just being family.
Book 2 of 20 Books of
Book: Common Ground Author: Naomi Ishiguro ISBN: 9781472273321 Publisher: Hachette Australia Date: 30 March 2021 Format: Paperback