Saturday, 11 April 2015

Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh: A twisted coming-of-age tale

Things We Have in Common by Tasha KavanaghThings We Have in Common (7 May 2015) by Tasha Kavanagh

Have you ever read a book so hungrily, and quickly, that afterwards it feels like a hallucination, dream or nightmare? Perhaps a less melodramatic comparison would be a film: some stories make you feel more like you've spent a couple of hours watching a movie, seeing it all play out vividly right in front of you, than a few days on-and-off reading a book. I breezed through Things We Have in Common in just a few hours, during which my absorption in the story heightened to increasingly feverish levels, and afterwards it felt like something I had seen - almost physically experienced - rather than read. I had this mental picture of the setting, clouded in a summer haze, that still lingers. I could see the colour palette of the film version.

Yasmin is fifteen years old and unhappy. She's friendless and the victim of school bullies; she has a strained relationship with her stepfather, and therefore also with her mother; she's overweight, and endures visits to a patronising dietitian whose advice she ignores anyway. The shining light in her life is her obsession - a combination of idolatry and desire - with a radiant classmate, Alice Taylor. We meet Yasmin when she is staring at Alice - but also watching someone else do the same. This is the first 'thing she has in common' with her co-observer, a stranger with whom she immediately feels a bond. But this person is no fellow pupil: he is a middle-aged man.

Samuel, as he turns out to be called - although there's some ambiguity about whether this is his real name - is a chameleon-like character who moves from sinister to thoroughly innocuous so swiftly and frequently that it's (no doubt intentionally) impossible to get an angle on who he is. Yasmin's initial, childish idea that he's a predatory paedophile seems to be upended when she actually meets him, finding instead a dog-lover whose mother has recently died - lonely, awkward, but apparently harmless. Yet it's precisely the potential of dubious qualities that draw Yasmin to him. Like many an outsider, she recognises a kindred spirit. And, like many an obsessive, she nurtures fantasies of rescuing the object of her affection in such a grand and public manner that she will naturally receive adoration in return. Her complicated attraction to Samuel, then, is partly a matter of wanting to protect her beloved Alice from a perceived threat, but at the same time wishing harm upon her so Yasmin can swoop in and save the day. In the middle of all this, the lines start blurring around who it is that Yasmin idolises, as her focus shifts from Alice to Samuel and back again. The chain of events that results turns this into a uniquely twisted coming-of-age story and a redefinition of 'be careful what you wish for'.

I spent much of this book wondering what it was that the narrator's voice reminded me of, unable to put my finger on it, and then towards the end I realised: it was Jacqueline Wilson, specifically a book of hers that was a childhood favourite of mine, The Suitcase Kid. I know it might seem like I'm insulting Kavanagh by comparing her novel to a book for pre-teen kids, but I mean it as a compliment - the author captures the voice of a young girl in such a way that her narrative has the ring of authenticity, but also works very well as entertainment. (And I always loved Wilson's style and characters, anyway.) It's because of this lightness that it's quite easy to sidestep the doubts you will inevitably have about Yasmin (is the simultaneous existence of such naivety and such manipulative power really believable for a gauche 15-year-old?) and simply allow yourself to be drawn into the irresistible flow of the story. The other, and for me more obvious, reference point is Jenn Ashworth's A Kind of Intimacy: Yasmin is, in more ways than one, a junior version of Ashworth's anti-heroine, Annie, and Things We Have in Common is the same kind of darkly humorous character study.

(When I started writing this, I'd forgotten the description used in the publisher's catalogue - it referred to Things We Have in Common as 'Sue Townsend meets Zoƫ Heller', which, of course, also works.)

This is a really strong debut novel, a subtle masterclass in character-building with a teenage voice so genuine that Yasmin really comes alive. It's rare for me to read a book quickly and yet find its characters and other details only become more solid in my head as time passes, but that's exactly what has happened with Things We Have in Common - partly, I think, because Yasmin's narration makes the book so easy to take in that you don't realise quite how expertly Kavanagh is crafting her characters and setting up the plot's final revelations. Watch out for this one: it deserves to be a hit (... and would also make a great film).

Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

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