“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.