Common Ground, Naomi Ishiguro, book review: ‘A modern-day Howards End’

‘Plenty of inspiration’: Naomi Ishiguro. Photograph: Rosie Powell

‘Only connect!’, pleaded E.M. Forster. This was back in 1910, at a cultural tipping point for British society when the social assumptions of the Victorian age were beginning seriously to fray. And here we are again, with values colliding across the UK. 

Common Ground by Naomi Ishiguro can be seen as a modern-day Howards End, taking up Forster’s theme of friendship across classes and cultures, but with a contemporary twist.

Based in Stoke Newington, and with Kazuo Ishiguro as her father, the debut novelist has undoubtedly had plenty of inspiration. The tale is set not in London, however, but in the Surrey hinterland.

When Stan meets Charlie on a patch of common land in ‘Newford’, the former is a spectacle-wearing 13-year-old bookworm who sustains relentless bullying at school. Sixteen-year-old Charlie, by contrast, is articulate, knowledgeable and confident. He knocks Stan out of his submissiveness and opens to him the language of resistance.

Fast forward nine years, and the pair cross paths again. Stan has drawn on this childhood enlightenment to pursue a career in campaigning journalism. Charlie, meantime, has sunk into a deadbeat job, a failing marriage and alcoholism.

And the reason? Stan has shot up through higher education; despite his youthful erudition, Charlie has no qualifications. Coming from a Traveller family that is continually moved on, taunted and shunned, Charlie sees resistance to oppression as a daily struggle rather than a faddish political pose.

As the men gradually, awkwardly learn from each other’s strategies and resources, a kind of reconnection glimmers on the horizon of possibilities.

Common Ground is a highly readable story that will show a mirror to many readers. They may not all be entirely happy with what they see, but the novel is destined to challenge not a few facile assumptions and accepted cultural tropes.

Common Ground by Naomi Ishiguro is published by Tinder Press. ISBN: 978 1 4722 7329 1; RRP: £16.99.