Novels about community
A theme in The Borrowed Boy, my debut novel, is our need to belong. From the day we start school and find ourselves alone on the playground, to later life when we may find ourselves living alone in a house, no longer known to our neighbours. We all have an innate need to be seen, valued, and respected.
In recent years there have been a number of bestselling novels with the theme of community and friendships combatting loneliness: Mr. Doubler Begins Again, Seni Glaister, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman, The Authenticity Project, Clare Pooley and Saving Missy, Beth Morrey, to name just a few. Why is there an appetite for these heart-warming stories?
Our need to belong
I believe it is because we have all at some time experienced a need to belong, and can identify with the feelings of isolation and loneliness experienced by the protagonists in these stories. Life changes such as:
- Moving into a new neighbourhood.
- Retiring from work
- Having a baby
- Changing schools
- Losing a loved one
Can all leave us feeling like that lost child on the playground, watching everyone else having fun as they run past in a game of tag, not seeming to see us. Yes, I was that child for a year or so – unable to join in because I had always played games with my little sister, who was too young for school, and I had not learnt how to make friends.
I wonder whether society is becoming more fragmented, as we lose the sense of community. People who go out to work, seem to be working longer hours. Out of town superstores have replaced a reliance on small local shops. Children and grandchildren often live overseas or on the other side of the country. Communities are transient, particularly in London, where few of the residents have lived in the same street for more than five years. There is a hankering after a by-gone age when people knew all of their neighbours and looked out for one another.
How the pandemic brought communities closer together
The pandemic will have cast a light on each of our neighbourhoods. In the UK we were encouraged to stand outside our home, every Thursday evening to clap in appreciation of our NHS. On those evenings I noticed a few of our neighbours for the first time. We started to talk to each other, checking that all is well. We also went back to buying locally, supporting local businesses, and frequenting the neighbourhood convenience store. As life changed, some of us were able to take a step back from our busy lives and rediscover the importance of family, and community.
Communities come together when there is a disaster, whether it is a flood, forest fires or as in this case a pandemic. We seem to have the instinct to come together and support one another. Academics have questioned whether this can be engineered and many attempts have been made by pioneers such as the ABCD (Asset-Based Community Development) movement which started in the USA in the 1960s in an attempt to rebuild troubled communities, and closer to home the Troubled Families Programme, which aimed to build a network of support around families struggling with multiple problems. These approaches have been successful, but they tend to create a dependence upon the paid staff. They hit the target but miss the point.
Combatting loneliness and isolation
A person who is lonely does not get the same satisfaction from a companion who has been paid to spend time with them, or a volunteer who is providing companionship under the banner of a charity. We all want real friendships where there is a reciprocal benefit. Having a common purpose brings together people from different backgrounds with different skills and life experiences. A bit like a team-building exercise, everyone does what they can and we are sometimes surprised to find out about peoples’ hidden talents.
In 2013 Marc Mordey and I embarked on a project. We wanted to find out if we could bring people together in a neighbourhood and enable them to be self-sustaining through real friendships and shared interests. Our premise was: everyone has something of value to contribute, the gifts of experience, knowledge, or practical skills. Our aim was to bring together a neighbourhood and enable them to share what they had to make it a better place to live.
We worked with neighbours in two London areas, Dagenham and Balham. We learned a lot. The pilot projects have been evaluated by SITRA (2014) and written up in several publications.
The community in The Borrowed Boy
But this isn’t an academic paper, I wanted to shine a light on the theme of community in The Borrowed Boy. There are two hidden communities in the story. Hidden, because sometimes we only see what we expect to see. I’ll let you read the book and come to your own conclusions.
Although Jaywick Sands is a real place on the Essex coast, the places and people in the story are entirely fictional. For fun, I have applied some of our learning on communities to this fictitious community.
Every neighbourhood has a unique character.
- The residents of Jaywick were suspicious of anyone from outside their community.
- They were united in a common cause, to persuade the Council to provide better living conditions.
- Most of the residents were living in poverty but they shared what they had.
- Although it had seen better days, residents were proud of their seaside village with its sandy beaches.
There are key people and places within a community that hold it together.
- Josie and The Seashell café provided a hub for this community. Josie knew all that was going on. She put people in contact with each other and knew when a person needed a bit of extra support.
Clubs and associations provide a community’s network
- When Josie needed to activate the community to see off an unwelcome visitor, she commandeered the assistance of: the dog walkers, Harley Hell Raisers (the local biking club), the kids who gathered in the square with their bicycles, the Queens Head publican and a few of their patrons.
- A councillor tried to influence this community by inviting them to a social event at the Community Centre. The residents turned up for the fish and chips and booze, some enjoyed a dance, but without Josie on board, the Councillor was wasting his breath.
How would you describe the unique characteristics of your own neighbourhood, or the fictitious one in your novel?
Who are the people who know what is going on and make things happen?
Which clubs and associations did you miss most in lockdown?
How do these serve to keep you connected and part of your local community?
I hope you will join me on some of the blog stops for the blog tour of The Borrowed Boy which starts on 1stAugust. See My books for the full programme.