A twisted tale of loneliness and obsession that haunts you long after the last line
I can’t remember the last time I devoured a book like Tasha Kavanagh’s debut, Things We Have In Common (Canongate Books, 2015). I was utterly engrossed, compelled to the end by the sheer brilliance of the story and the protagonist who told it.
We follow Yasmin, an unpopular teenager, whose obsession with a fellow classmate, Alice, leads her to believe she is not the only one who wants her. Her mission to keep her safe leads her to a man she transfers her infatuation onto, with dire consequences for Alice. Yasmin is by no means a likeable lead. But, she was so relatable to me in so many ways that I felt a weird connection with her. An overweight, 15-year-old loner with an obsessive personality and delusional tendencies may not be an entirely accurate picture of my teenage years… But, I oddly understood Yasmin.
A social outcast, Yasmin seeks comfort in the only thing that is always there for her – food. Kavanagh highlights the importance of this in the book’s chapter titles, from Chocolate Hobnobs to Strawberry Tarts to Turkish Delight. Food can provide solace when nothing else will, but I know all too well that satisfaction is short lived. Despite seemingly solving problems, a reliance on food can cause more troubles. Yasmin’s weight makes her an easy target for bullies. Her classmates have christened her ‘Doner’, after the kebab. Her stepfather is ashamed to be seen with her. She assumes the first reason no one wants to befriend her is because of her size – “Is it because I’m so fat?” It hits close to home and I can’t help but feel for her. But, her weight is just a distraction from the real reason she is so repellent.
Yasmin’s obsessive nature makes her impulsive and irrational. Her behaviour escalates over the course of the novel, but in such a subtle way that I wasn’t surprised in the slightest of what she was capable of. From picking up a hairband to stealing a dog to entering a house uninvited, Yasmin acts on her desires unashamedly. Of course, this means she is also an impulsive liar, which makes her dangerous. When challenged, even by the police, her instinct is to lie. She is manipulative and uses her father’s death as an excuse for her behaviour. Her mother enables her, reinforcing this belief that losing her father must be the cause of all her issues. She comforts her with food – the only source of happiness she can conjure for her daughter – and continually defends her erratic choices.
The heartbreaking thing is it’s so painstakingly obvious that Yasmin just wants to be loved. That’s why she jumps at every possible glimpse of affection she is shown. When Alice gives her a sympathetic drawing to console her from bullies, Yasmin sees this as a sign of secret devotion. Her desperate attention seeking explains exactly why she forges a relationship with Samuel, the man she initially believes to be a threat to Alice, and exaggerates every interaction into something more. Anyone who has ever had a teenage crush – which let’s face it, is nearly all of us – can relate to the agonising analysis of everything they do and what it could possibly mean. She searches for these little things they have in common, when really, it’s all superficial. Like Alice’s drawing, she cherishes an ornamental dog Samuel gifts her; unbeknown to him he is facilitating a fantasy that encourages Yasmin’s delusions.
Kavanagh’s writing style is so wonderfully absorbing, it is a pleasure to read. It’s little wonder that the book has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards 2015. By using a teenage protagonist, the prose is bite-sized and uncomplicated. Yasmin continually talks to ‘you’ throughout the story, referring to Samuel. But, it feels like she is literally talking to you, the reader. The prose is so vivid, so encapsulating, that each scene can be envisioned perfectly. It makes the story sail by, sweeping you along the current to leave you dumbfounded on the shore.
But, the truly remarkable thing about Kavanagh’s book is the story itself. It’s dark and gripping and unafraid to venture near taboo subjects like paedophilia. Most of all, it is unpredictable and shocking, with the lack of resolution at the end particularly frustrating. But then again, perhaps Kavanagh has been telling the truth all along. It is just too harrowing to accept.