Book Review: Common Ground

“That was the thing about other people. You owed them a particular version of yourself. You had to make them laugh, or feel safe, or whatever else they expected of you. You had to seem like you had the whole thing under control.”

Common Ground, By Naomi Ishiguro, is a story of tribes and the difficulties in forging friendships that cross cultural divides. It focuses on two young men who first meet when they are teenagers. Stan is thirteen and is being bullied by peers at the posh new school where he is a scholarship pupil, standing out in his ill-fitting secondhand uniform. He is socially awkward and still grieving for his father who died a protracted death that still shadows Helen, Stan’s mother, creating distance between them. When Stan meets Charlie, a slightly older boy from a local community of Travellers, he finally finds a friend he can admire and connect with. Charlie has also lost his dad, although in less tragic circumstances. The absence of these adults has unmoored their offspring.

Stan and Charlie hang out on the local common, riding their bikes and shooting the breeze. When Charlie invites Stan back to his home for a traditional celebration it becomes clear that non-travelling folk – Gorjers – are unwelcome there. Stan would like to get to know Charlie’s cousin, Cindy, better but is warned away. The suspicion and discrimination between those who choose to live differently exists in both directions.

Charlie is particularly ill at ease around his uncle, Martin, the de facto leader of his community. Away from him, the boy has swagger and bravado, coming out with rebellious phrases Stan admires. All the same, Stan keeps his friendship with Charlie a secret from Helen who regards Travellers as troublesome, best avoided. The antics the boys get up to only prove to confirm her prejudices.

The second section of the book is set in London eight years later. Charlie is now married, as was expected and required by his people. Stan works as a journalist while studying for his Masters at UCL. An unlikely coincidence brings them together.

While much of what happened previously is told from Stan’s perspective, the remainder of the story mostly plays out from inside Charlie’s head. He comes across as trying to escape himself, to find a way to deny reality. With each unwise choice he makes there is a building of tension, the approach of impending crisis. Charlie harbours big thoughts as he considers his future, stymied by how unfairly he and his people are treated. His ill considered reactions and inability to articulate what is happening do nothing to change how Travellers are perceived by wider society.

Stan, who has plenty of words and ways to convey them, wants to help his friend. His efforts drive them apart again.

The final section opens up the differences between Travellers and Gorjers to include other tribal divisions. These are skilfully woven in. The author shows how people are drawn to tacitly accept an us/them mentality, be the divisions: intellectual achievement, religion, nationality, small community, or even football teams. The desire to belong, to be accepted and feel wanted, enables leaders to gain followers who rarely question too deeply the consequences of what they are supporting. There is power in a catchy chant, a soundbite, a suggestion that something valued requires defending.

The writing style is less quirky than the author’s short story collection, Escape Routes. This is a straightforwardly told story whose easy reading belies the depth of the subject matter. There is no attempt to sugar coat the depictions of Travellers and those who wish they did not exist. This adds strength to a narrative that may otherwise have come across as lightweight – as a perfectly acceptable 400 pages of fiction but nothing special. By dealing head on with the lasting damage of prejudice while acknowledging the reasons for its prevalence, the bar is raised.

An enjoyable, thought-provoking read that opens a window on a community that more usually gains negative comment. No easy answers are suggested, other than the need for both sides to listen and consider the consequences of imposing cultural divisions. I would be interested in hearing a Traveller’s perspective on this tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Gig Review: Naomi Ishiguro in Bath

On Tuesday of this week I travelled to Bath for a rather special author event. Naomi Ishiguro was at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights – where she used to work as a bookseller – for her inaugural public gig as a published author. It was lovely to observe the warm welcome she received from former colleagues. Friends and family were also in attendance to support what came across as a relaxed and open interview with her former boss, Nic Bottomley. He expressed his pride that one of his booksellers had gone on to create her own shiny book, especially one as good as Escape Routes.

As ever when I write up literary gigs I attend, the following is taken from notes I made on the night. I hope it is of interest.

The nine short stories in this debut collection explore themes of entrapment and flight – escape. After his introduction, Mr B opened by talking about the three tales that feature a rat catcher, asking if these started out as one story or the three included in the book.

Naomi explained that they were from a series she worked on while studying at UEA. She placed her characters in a fairytale world but set herself a rule not to make it too magical (in the real world contemporary settings of the other stories she allowed magical elements). The initial concept was Gormenghasty. A tutor dismissed the stories as full of tropes so they were set aside until a new tutor was more encouraging and suggested they were worth revisiting.

Naomi likes to try different voices and to test herself in order to develop as a writer. Her stories grow organically.

She started writing while working at Mr B’s. Having been raised in London the move to Bath felt like an escape, although she required some re-education. The first time she was in a wood and heard an owl she was unaware it was a natural sound.

Naomi regards each story as a song. It captures a moment and endings don’t need to be entirely settled.

Mr B asked if the book, then, was an album, and how the order of the tales was decided.

Naomi explained that she had heard that George Saunders prints his stories onto paper and then physically moves them around to find an order he believes works. Naomi liked this and her stories were shuffled during the editing process.

Mr B asked if she could introduce some of her stories, as she would have done for a customer on a Reading Spa.

The first story in the collection is titled Wizards. It is about a boy and a bogus magician who meet on a beach. The boy is looking forward to receiving his Hogwarts letter, although this is not specifically mentioned. The magician is trapped by his anxieties, especially his father’s voice in his head.

Mr B asked if Naomi had expected such a letter, if it was something her generation had hoped for.

Naomi admitted that the Harry Potter books had seemed so real to her, the ordinariness of Privet Drive, that at some level she had hoped to receive her letter.

She disagreed with Mr B that the ending of Wizards was ambiguous. She likes it when she is writing a story and can see the ending as it gives her something to work towards.

Mr B concurred that Gormenghast came to mind when he was reading the collection, and also Patrick de Witt.

Naomi told us that she read a great deal of Victorian fiction growing up, enjoying the Gothic elements. She only started reading more contemporary literature at university. She wrote a dull dissertation for her MA – about characters moving from place to place – to work through the technical aspects of moving between scenes. She much prefers writing voice led stories, listening to people and capturing them in her work. She enjoys writing dialogue and would have liked to write screenplays but could see limited demand so instead adds dialogue to her stories.

There followed a discussion about urban malaise. Naomi spoke of the differences in culture between London and Bath – the pace of living and demands made. Without wishing to idealise she mentioned how much more friendly Bath is and how people appear less busy. She told us the stress in London is insane.

Her story titled Accelerate features a guy who becomes addicted to coffee (which Naomi first drank when she started working at Mr B’s) as it streamlines his efficiency. She enjoyed the idea of taking an effect to its extreme.

Mr B commented that he liked this guy…

Naomi regards office life as a privileged existence although she never wanted it for herself. Friends who are, for example, lawyers are expected to work so many hours.

Mr B observed that many routes put young people on a conveyor belt to an office job resulting in many ending up there when it doesn’t suit them.

He asked if Naomi liked writing from a child’s perspective as quite a few of her characters are children.

The answer was yes as she uses their sheltered world, the wonder of possibilities that haven’t yet turned cynical. Children’s lives are more protected and still in flux. She regards two of the boys she created – Alfie and Jamie – similar in many ways despite their very different circumstances.

Mr B suggested they talk about books. Naomi and he agreed there should be book trolleys on trains and that an idea the bookshop once had – to offer recommendations to customers who sent photographs to Mr B’s of books for sale at airports – had potential. If she were still a bookseller, what books would she now recommend to customers?

Becky Chambers. Julia Darling; Pearl contains beautiful writing – humour, warmth, quirky characters who are doing their best.

Mr B asked if her family connections helped on her road to publication or if there were still surprises.

Naomi didn’t recall talking to her parents about this. She learnt about getting an agent and so on while doing her Masters at UEA. Having said that, she told us it is all a bit surprising. Skype interviews, talking at events, it can all seem a bit odd at times. In any other social interaction she wouldn’t constantly be talking in this way about herself and her work.

Questions were invited from the audience.

Naomi’s boyfriend kicked off, mentioning that she didn’t talk about her story, Bear, and asking how she inhabited the head of a middle aged man.

Naomi explained that writing is empathy and it happens naturally – a voice enters her head. It is a way to live lots of lives. She joked that the man could be based on her university supervisor.

Question: Which authors inhabited your head growing up? (ed. during this long list my pen ran out of ink – gah – but I include as many here as I could write down when I grabbed a replacement)

Doctor Who, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Gormenghast, Patrick de Witt, loads of science fiction and fantasy, geeky voices.

Question: You hear characters’ voices. Are these discrete or a part of you?

Definitely a part. It is nice to express different sides of my self. I can manifest in many different ways – thinking, what if I was this – and write.

Question: Were any characters, traits or moments from real life or were they all in your head?

Amanda Palmer has talked about an art blender. She says that her husband, Neil Gaiman, has his on a high setting. So yes, all things I’m thinking about are mixed in an art blender.

Mr B asked how Naomi felt when she got a quote from Neil Gaiman endorsing her book.

This came from a tweet he posted while reading Escape Routes that Naomi’s publisher subsequently asked if they could use. It felt amazing. A huge moment to have someone admired so much read her work and say they enjoyed it.

Mr B commented on how great the hardback cover is – such an important aspect for a bookshop.

Naomi explained it was created by her publisher’s in-house artist. She open the book to show both the front and back cover and revealed a bird – perfect for the themes explored, including flight, in the stories.

And with that Mr B raised his glass in congratulation and invited the audience to join Naomi in the bookshop’s Imaginarium where she would be happy to sign copies of her book.

Naomi thanked so many for coming out to see her when most can’t yet have read her book.

A long queue formed and I overheard her proud dad, there in support, saying he too had purchased copies for Naomi to sign.

Many from the audience were to be seen admiring the recently expanded bookshop which has become quite a labyrinth – it is gorgeous. I was pleased to find my name inscribed on the ceiling as a supporter.

And with that I took my leave and headed home. It was a lovely evening.

Escape Routes is published by Tinder Press and is available to buy now from all good bookshops, including Mr B’s (click on cover above for the link) 

Book Review: Escape Routes

I was drawn to read Escape Routes when I learned that the author used to be a bookseller at one of my favourite shops in Bath, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. It was only when I read the acknowledgements that I realised she is also the daughter of Nobel Laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro – quite the pedigree for an aspiring author. I subsequently discovered that, in April of last year, Tinder Press ‘snapped up’ this, her debut short story collection. I am pleased not to have known these facts before I started reading. It is a book that could easily have come from the carefully curated lists of my beloved small indie presses rather than the accountant driven committees of one of the big five publishers (that I suspect can stymie the literary passion of commissioning editors and publicists).

Enough. This eclectic book is so good.

There are nine short stories in the collection although three are one story presented as a trilogy. Titled, The Rat Catcher, this divided tale is set in a kingdom suffering from rodent infestation and associated disease. The new young king has gone into seclusion, abandoning his rundown palace to his half sister. The titular rat catcher is commanded to rid the palace of its vermin. Unbeknownst to him, his work will stoke a family feud with unsettling consequences. The writing is fable like with elements that are dark alongside the playfulness.

The opening tale, Wizards, features a ten year old misfit, Alfie, who is counting down the days to his next birthday when he expects to attain magical powers.

“he realised he loved being on holiday. Perhaps most of all like this, alone, the sea like a magic door or threshold he just had to cross to find another place where the things to be afraid of were clear, monstrous things you could face down with weapons and with shouting and heroic resolution, like magic beasts or evil armies. He would be much more suited to a life like that, he considered, than the one he had been allocated here.”

Alfie is in Brighton with his sad, controlling mother and her out of work partner when the child encounters a man working a beach booth as a fortune teller. Luciano the Diviner, also known as Peter, has ideas of himself as: a dude, a child of the universe, catching rays, drinking in the beauty of a place, living for the moment. Peter’s confidence in his self-styled persona is too often punctured by a voice in his head that reminds him, annoyingly, of his eminently sensible father. Peter’s reaction to Alfie sets of a potentially catastrophic chain of events, for both of them.

Bear is the story of a newly wed couple who buy the titular large, stuffed animal and then find it becomes a metaphor for their marriage. It is a fine evocation of how love can cause individuals to invent the person they want their beloved to be, blinding them to reality and creating lonely resentment.

In a strong field, the prose in Heart Problems impressed. Dan is living in London with his fiancée, Beatrice, but is deeply unsettled.

“it is so uncomfortable, so unpleasant to exist here in this city, only the fittest allowed to survive and all the elderly and children tidied into hospitals, nurseries, and goodness knows where else, conveniently out of sight.”

Without a job, Dan spends his days wandering the streets, talking only briefly each day to a newspaper vendor. His father, back in Ireland, is ill and Dan misses the life he and Beatrice had amongst their mutual friends in Dublin. In trying to articulate how he feels, he dwells on his fear of being unwell. He keeps a suitcase packed with ‘essentials’ and imagines escaping.

“I added a compass, because it’s always useful, I’ve decided, to know where you are in relation to something fixed, even if you’re unsure of where you’re going.”

What keeps him in London is Beatrice, but he is unconvinced this is enough to sustain him.

“Beatrice is one of those individuals who is consciously trying very hard to be a good person. Not that she isn’t naturally a good person. It’s just that she’s always making such an effort at it”

Another favourite story was Shearing Season. Jamie is a ‘strangely gifted eleven-year old’ who wants to be an astronaut but lives on a remote sheep farm in the Lake District. When Miles, a PhD student in Aerospace Engineering, comes to lodge at the farm the boy sees a potential opportunity to ‘break into the space travel industry’. Miles sets Jamie a series of tests. The denouement of this tale is exquisitely rendered.

Accelerate is a fabulous read – layered and nuanced with the added bonus of a scene set on a hill not far from where I live. It gently mocks office work, and unrealistic expectations in relationships where each partner will try to mould the other rather than accepting difference. I wasn’t convinced that the dialogue section fitted (I am reviewing a proof so it is possible this will be changed in the final edit). I adored what the author did with the starling murmuration. The poignant ending was perfect.

The Flat Roof is one of the shorter of the stories and offers less breadth and progression. It is a study of grief, the weight of it, again using avian imagery.

The voices used throughout are original, quirky in places but perfectly fitting the structures employed and character development.

An enjoyable, striking collection with a fine balance of contemporary elements and more mythical themes. This is an author to watch (in her own right) and a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.