THINGS WE HAVE IN COMMON

Tasha Kavanagh

Reader beware: You’ll think you know what’s happening, and you’ll think you see what’s coming next… But you’ll be very, very wrong.

Fifteen-year-old Yasmin Doner is a social misfit—obese, obsessive and deemed a freak by her peers at school. With her father dead and her mother in a new relationship, Yasmin yearns for a sense of belonging, finding comfort only in food and the fantasy of being close to Alice Taylor, a girl at school. Yasmin will do anything to become friends with pretty and popular Alice—even if Alice, like everyone else, thinks she’s a freak.

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Reader beware: You’ll think you know what’s happening, and you’ll think you see what’s coming next… But you’ll be very, very wrong.

Fifteen-year-old Yasmin Doner is a social misfit—obese, obsessive and deemed a freak by her peers at school. With her father dead and her mother in a new relationship, Yasmin yearns for a sense of belonging, finding comfort only in food and the fantasy of being close to Alice Taylor, a girl at school. Yasmin will do anything to become friends with pretty and popular Alice—even if Alice, like everyone else, thinks she’s a freak.

When Yasmin notices a sinister-looking man watching Alice from the school fence, she sees a way of finally winning Alice’s affection—because how this stranger is staring is far more than just looking, it’s wanting. Because this stranger, Yasmin believes, is going to take Alice. Yasmin decides to find out more about this man so that when he does take Alice, Yasmin will be the only one who knows his name and where he lives…the only one who can save her.

But as Yasmin discovers more about him, her affections begin to shift. Perhaps she was wrong about him. Perhaps she doesn’t need Alice after all.

And then Alice vanishes.

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  • MIRA
  • Hardcover
  • February 2017
  • 304 Pages
  • 9780778326854

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About Tasha Kavanagh

Tasha Kavanagh lives in Hertfordshire with her family and three cats. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, has worked as an editor on feature films, including The Talented Mr RipleyTwelve Monkeys and Seven Years in Tibet, and has had 10 books for children published under her maiden name Tasha Pym. Things We Have In Common is her first novel.

Author Website

Praise

“Tasha Kavanagh’s Yasmin is as complex and believable a narrator as you will find. Her honesty drives the novel to its unflinching, brilliant conclusion and is why Things We Have in Common is so disturbing…so impossible to set aside.”Travis Mulhauser, author of Sweetgirl

“A brilliantly twisted coming-of-age tale… The story chillingly, compulsively unravels.” Sunday Express

“A pitch-black comedy thriller.”The Guardian

“With a dark and suspenseful plot that keeps the reader guessing until the final pages, Things We Have in Common is an assured debut narrated by an alarming and original voice.”The Irish Times

“A tale of loneliness and teenage obsession which could be the next Gone Girl success story.” Independent (UK)

Discussion Questions

1. The novel is written in the second-person point of view. How did this affect your reading experience? Why do you think the author chose this POV?

2. Do you think the author intends the “We” in the title to include you?

3. Yasmin is a very introspective character, often imagining scenarios removed from her daily life. How does this trait shape her as a narrator? Does this make her unreliable? What external factors contribute to her fantasies?

4. Why do you think Yasmin fantasizes about Alice’s disappearance? What emotional need, if any, does this fulfill for her?

5. How does Yasmin’s life at school affect her life at home? How does her home life affect her behavior at school?

6. What roles does Mr Caldwell fill in Yasmin’s life? What roles does she fill in his?

7. Does this novel challenge our understanding of guilt and innocence? Who is the perpetrator? Who is the victim?

8. In what ways is this novel a search for belonging?

9. What did you think of the ending? What did you make of the very last sentence?

10. Would you befriend Yasmin?

Excerpt

The first time I saw you, you were standing at the far end of the playing field near the bit of fence that’s trampled down, where the kids who come to school along the wooded path cut across.

You were looking down at your little brown straggly dog that had its face stuck in the grass, but then you looked up in the direction of the tennis court, your mouth going slack as your eyes clocked her. Even if I hadn’t followed your gaze, I’d have known you were watching Alice Taylor because she had that effect on me, too. I used to catch myself gazing at the back of her head in class, at her silky fair hair swaying between her shoulder blades as she looked from her book to the teacher or said something to Katy Ellis next to her.

At that moment she was turning to walk backward, saying something to the girls who were following her, the sketchbook she took everywhere tucked under her arm. She looked so light and easy, it was like she created space around her: not space in the normal sense but something else I can’t explain. Even in our green school uniform it was obvious she was special.

If you’d glanced just once across the field, you’d have seen me standing in the middle on my own, looking straight at you, and you’d have gone back through the trees to the path quick, tugging your dog after you. You’d have known you’d given yourself away, even if only to me.

But you didn’t. You only had eyes for Alice.

I looked around to see who else had spotted you. There were loads of kids on the field, but they were all busy with each other, footballs or their phones.

I looked back at the windows of the school building. I thought I’d see a teacher behind one of them, fixed on you, like I know your game, sunshine. I saw Mr. Matthews walk past the History window reading from a piece of paper and Miss Wilcox one floor down in the staff room talking to Mrs. Henderson.

Then the bell went.

I didn’t see your reaction because Robert pushed Dan into me, shouting, “He wants you, Doner—don’t deny him,” then staggered backward, laughing as Dan swore at him and tried to get him in a headlock.

I caught a glimpse of your blue jacket disappearing between the branches, though. The saying Saved by the bell came into my head because Dad always used to say it, and as I walked back across the field, I whispered the words slowly— “ Saved by the bell, saved by the bell,” even though I knew that you weren’t saved by anything, that you’d be back.

 

My name’s not really Doner. It’s Yasmin. It’s just Doner at school—which is hilarious by the way because it’s short for Doner Kebab and as well as being overweight I’m half-Turkish. It used to be plain “Fatty” at junior school, then “Blubber-butt” when I came to Ashfield, or “Lesbo” till Mel Raynor and Natalie Simms started publicly making out, making lesbianism à la mode, whatever that means.

Anyway, I didn’t see you at school the following day, even though I watched for you. At break and lunch I sat against the games hut where all the PE stuff such as nets and balls and bibs is kept. I could see the whole of the fence that runs alongside the wooded path from there. I ate the chocolate Hobnobs I buy every morning on the way to school, chewing slowly and trying to ignore the fact that my bum was going numb from the concrete, scanning the trees for a bit of your jacket and listening for the kind of bark your little dog might make. I was vigilant, and I wouldn’t have missed you because of being distracted by friends because I don’t have any. People look at me and think the same as I thought when I saw you: freak. So I figured, as well as feeling compelled to stare at Alice Taylor, being freaks was something else we had in common.

English is the only classroom I go to that overlooks the playing field, so I looked out for you there, too. I have to sit in the third row from the window, but I could just about see the fence at the bottom of the field if I sat up, except that it was difficult to look without being obvious about it—which I was, because Robert threw a screwed-up piece of paper that hit my ear, and because a few minutes later Miss Frances, my English teacher who’s really a Borg, said “Yasmin” in that sarcastic tone teachers use just to waste everyone’s time because they know you’re not listening and won’t be able to answer whatever it was they asked.

I looked at her, rolling my biro in my fingers.

What she was telling me with her ice-blue eyes and black triangular eyebrows was, I hate you, Yasmin Laksaris, and wish with all my frozen heart that you’d leave this school I have to teach in, but while you’re still here don’t think I won’t make you pay for it. What she said was: “Any ideas about why Robert Browning chooses to set his poem in a storm?”

I thought about what the weather had been like when you were watching Alice. Dull and gray and so still it was as if the world had been sucked into another dimension where everything moved in silent, super-slow motion.

“She doesn’t know, Miss,” Robert said. “She’s a kebab” (said like shish a kebab). Miss Frances didn’t laugh, even though I’m sure she found it quite amusing. She didn’t want Robert stealing her spotlight. She folded her arms till she had everyone’s attention again, then said, “Do you have any opinions about anything, Yasmin?”

I stopped twirling my biro. It’s chewed, the plastic split halfway to the tip, and the blue bit that fits in the end isn’t there (I’m a chewer as well as a freak). I thought about giving my opinion that her drawn-on eyebrows make her look like she’s a member of an enemy alien race that’s managed to infiltrate the education system. Then I thought about giving my opinion about you—about how you were watching our school and had your sights set on Alice Taylor and that, if I was asked, I’d say one day pretty soon you might even take her.

I don’t think I realized till that second that I did think you were going to take her. I knew it then, though. I knew the way you’d looked at her was never just looking. It was wanting. I bet it was wanting in a way you’d never wanted anything before. Like you’d never seen anything so lovely, never even dreamed about having anything quite that good—being able to touch her hair, slide your hands beneath her crisp white shirt.

Anyway, luckily for you I didn’t say anything. No one would’ve believed me in any case. I’d probably have been sent to Miss Ward, the Head, who’d have said something like I’ve told you about telling lies before, haven’t I, Yasmin? Which she has, several times. Instead, I looked around. Everyone was staring at me and I realized they were all waiting for me to answer Miss Frances’s question about having opinions. Dan sniggered.

“No?” I said. It came out like a question, like I didn’t know whether I had any opinions or not.

The whole class fell about then, and even though I couldn’t care less, I felt my face burn. I probably looked at Alice without thinking, instinctively, to see if she was laughing with the rest of them.

She wasn’t. She was the only one who wasn’t. She was just looking at me over her shoulder, her green eyes sort of observing me. I thought maybe in some parallel universe or via telepathy she’d heard my opinion about what you were going to do and that she’d understood somehow that I was going to save her, so I smiled. A small, secret smile. And even though she frowned and wrinkled her nose up before she turned away, I knew she’d felt it, too—the connection.

 

I’ve kept Alice’s steady green eyes in my head ever since. I still think of them even now—usually when I’m alone in the house, doing something ordinary like wiping the worktop or changing the sheets on the bed. They appear as suddenly as they did that day in English, and float about the house with me, watching me wherever I go, whatever I do.

Anyway, that day after school, I didn’t know Alice’s eyes would watch me forever, so I concentrated all my efforts on not losing them—on keeping them there in my head. It was like a self-induced trance. I didn’t speak to anyone and ate dinner gazing somewhere beyond the television, ignoring Gary pointing his knife at my plate and having a go at Mum for putting too much mash on it, saying, “You’re not doing her any favors you know,” and moving along the sofa without a word when Mum patted me to move up, all the while hearing things only like they were far away and seeing only Alice’s green eyes watching me, watching me, watching…

When the six o’clock news came on, I went up to my room. Mum had closed the curtains and it was nice and cozy. I shut the door, switched on my giant lava lamp and took Alice’s Box out of my bedside cabinet. It’s square like a cube and gold and probably had chocolates in it to start with. For years it had my hair things in it, such as clips and scrunchies, but I stopped wearing them when I went to senior school and threw them away.

The first thing I put in it—the thing that made it Alice’s Box— was a piece of green foil that went around a snack she’d had at break. That was in Year Seven when we were all new. It was a nice green, sort of smoky. I’d watched her lay it on her French book and smooth it carefully outward from the middle with her fingertips. I don’t know if she meant to leave it behind, but when everyone’d gone and I’d slid it carefully between the pages of my textbook, I imagined she had. I imagined it was a secret message—her way of telling me she’d be my friend if she could, if Katy would let her.

Copyright © 2015, 2017 by Tasha Kavanagh

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Interviews

What would you like readers to take away from the story?

I’m drawn to characters who, for whatever reasons, are outcasts of society. I’m interested in what lengths they (and any of us) might go to in order to get what they need emotionally. I never contemplated what I’d like readers to take from Things We Have in Common when writing it, but now I hope they will empathize with Yasmin, delight in her determination to attain her goal, and perhaps to consider the part we all play in creating such a character.

 

Do you relate to Yasmin in any way – her obsessive nature, wanting to be popular as a teenager, not quite fitting in, anything like that? Did you know anybody like her, growing up?

I’m nothing like Yasmin yet I suppose since I didn’t struggle to write her, I must have more elements of her than I imagine! I think, although I love a good party, I’m a bit of a loner, hence the writing. And like Yasmin I can be obsessive — I definitely listen to songs far, far more times than a sensible person would and for years longer too! I’m also dogged and don’t easily give up. Writing requires these traits just to keep going. And then there’s food. Like many millions of teenagers, I was obsessed with food. I would not have been classed as overweight, but was always dieting and fighting a binging disorder. I never knew a Yasmin growing up—other than the girl that intrigued me as an adult in our street—but I knew an ‘Alice’ at primary school. There’s always an Alice isn’t there—the ‘perfect’ one the other girls want to be like or be close to?

 

You have a teenage daughter. Did she influence Yasmin’s character and/or her voice?

My daughter is 16 but is nothing like Yasmin. Maybe on some level, having a daughter the same age as my protagonist gave me the confidence to write a character of that age, but Yasmin seemed to come from my subconscious, her voice and thoughts very clear to me. I’ve written a blog about where characters come from because this is such an interesting question for me. It feels as though Yasmin came from somewhere so deep in my subconscious that I didn’t create her at all, rather that she ‘grew up’ around all the other characters in books that have had an impact on me.

 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Yes, since I was 8. I wrote story after story then—missed most of Christmas day one year for The Adventures of Tinkerbell (a cow in my version). I mainly wrote plays as a teenager then got onto the MA Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia where I was lucky enough to be tutored by Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain. But then I went into film editing (which is similar to writing in many ways). I had a wonderful time working on features including 12 Monkeys, Seven Years in Tibet and The Talented Mr Ripley, but I craved solitude and wanted to be in charge of everything! And you can do that as a writer—the direction, the editing, the acting, the lighting, and the rest of it, too. That’s what is so utterly brilliant about writing, and all for the cost of a notebook and pencil.

 

Is it true that you only wrote one draft of Things We Have in Common?

Not really. It’s true in the sense that when I wrote the last line, that was it—finished—but my method is different to many writers. Unable to fly through a draft and then go back to edit, I make much slower progress, editing as I go. I find that polishing and reworking the text en route allows me to discover more depth and meaning in each scene and gives me time to get a feel for what needs to come next. Once under the eyes of my agent and editor there were changes of course. Mainly, I added a few scenes to allow the story to breathe. I think with my previous picture book writing experience I’d written too economically in places.

 

What are you working on now?

As mentioned, I’m drawn to stories about people who are, for whatever reason, social misfits. The protagonist of my second novel is one such character. Unbearably lonely, he is caught between a paralyzing fear of his desire and a yearning to express it. When he recognizes his own suffering in another, he knows he is the only one who can help. But his carefully constructed world is tearing at the seams, he is deeply deluded, and his actions threaten to destroy far more than just his sanity.

Essay

A Note from the Author

People say books can get under your skin and shape who you are, but I had no idea to what degree this was true until I wrote Things We Have in Common.

Writers often talk about experiencing an existential feeling as they work, of feeling like little more than vessels for the stories they create, and particularly at the initial stages of writing Things We Have in Common, I had that experience too. When I decided to try to write a novel, I didn’t know what theme, character, plot or even genre might emerge. The only conscious thought I had was to try writing to a fictional “you” because that felt intimate and seemed to me to perfectly represent a reader’s personal relationship with a book.

I began a sentence: The first time I saw you, you were standing at the far end of the playing field… and felt instantly drawn to the tone of the voice. I knew it was a teenage girl speaking. I knew she was overweight and lonely and that the “you” she was addressing was a sinister, older man. I also knew that what she wanted to tell me was going to be dark, secret, and deeply delusional, and I wanted to keep going to find out what that was.

It’s fairly obvious why I was drawn to such a dark theme, I suppose, since almost all the books I’ve read and loved, especially as a teenager, are dark, psychologically driven stories—The Wasp Factory by Ian Banks, Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier, The Tulip Touch by Anne Fine, Magic by William Golding, This Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith—but where Yasmin, my protagonist, came from, I really had no idea. She is nothing like me, from background to life experiences, yet there she was driving the narrative of my story.

My teenage years were happy and active, but I was bullied at a young age, between 7-10. Like anyone who has been bullied knows, it is something that stays with you. Maybe it explains why I was and still am drawn to fictional characters that are, for whatever reason, pushed to the edges of society. Rejection is a powerful emotion to handle, even if only temporary, and a fear of rejection is something I think we humans all have in common. Subjected to loneliness as a result of rejection over time, I’m fascinated by what terrible acts any of us might be driven to commit.

I was more than two thirds into my book before I remembered, out of the blue, The Collector by John Fowles. I had read it when I was 15, the same age as Yasmin. Immediately, I bought it and devoured it again and was stunned by how plainly it had influenced me, how whilst I had forgotten it for so long, my subconscious clearly had not. The story that Frederick tells us, like Yasmin’s, is secret: only readers, as helpless voyeurs from another world, can hear it. And both Frederick and Yasmin, without access to love, look for what they emotionally need in fantasies of “golden” girls. In both stories, too, the protagonists are delusional. Unaware of where their actions are leading them, this blindness is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of their characters. Cast out by society, they have lost touch with it, instead creating their own, new moral compasses to fit their needs.

Quite where Yasmin came from and why I felt I knew her so well is still a mystery to me, though. I can only explain her as surfacing from that same subconscious place as Frederick from The Collector. Perhaps, before she came to the surface of my mind, she had been living her life down there amongst the characters from all the books I’ve read and loved, and that it was they as much as me who created her and her story.