Naomi Ishiguro began writing Common Groundin the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. The title refers to both Goshawk Common in Newford, Surrey, where 13-year-old Stanley Gower meets 16-year-old Charlie Wells, and the threads that bind the boys despite their differences. Stan isn’t a talker; he tends ‘to stay quiet and stare at people’, which, together with his second-hand clothes and his desire to learn, has made him a target at school. Charlie is the opposite, with ‘his cigarettes and talk of girls and his recklessness and messiness’. Yet a friendship blooms on this ‘scrubby grass and tumbling hillside in the south of England’ — on common ground.
We soon discover that Charlie is an outsider too: ‘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.’ When Stan, who lives with his emotionally distant mother Helen, first visits the Traveller site, a small part of him is apprehensive: ‘This was the part that spoke with Helen’s voice and called the gypsies wild, completely lawless.’ Ishiguro has a talent for creating a niggling sense that, beneath the huge skies and the bird song, trouble is brewing. After a bully smashes in Stan’s nose, Charlie suggests they pay a visit to the boy’s plush family home. The next dozen pages are pumped with adrenaline.
The novel begins in 2003, from Stan’s perspective, then skips to 2017 and switches to Charlie’s. He and his wife Kate are living in a flat in London, grappling with grief and debt. He works in a warehouse — ‘You know, forklift stuff’ — and has a bare-knuckle fight coming up at the weekend to ‘defend the family’s good name and all that’. He and Stan haven’t seen each other for more than a decade, and their reunion at a student party may seem too convenient a coincidence. Still, when you’re rooting for the characters, a stage manager’s gentle nudge can be welcome. Now it’s Stan who is ‘a silver lining, or a lifeline, even’.
Ishiguro has a knack for observing adolescence that brings to mind the fiction of Ali Smith. Her novel captures both the innocence of childhood and the way social pressures and prejudices chip away at a person: twentysomething Charlie no longer sees ‘so many avenues of possibility stretching ahead, wide open’. Common Ground could be described as a coming-of-age story, but it’s more than that: it’s a celebration of multiculturalism and friendship, and a rallying cry to make the world a better, kinder place.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10