Unappealing and Unlovable: Why ‘Things We Have in Common’ was one of the top debut novels of 2015

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I was torn as to whether to write about this novel or not.  I really try to keep with my ‘recommend rather than review’ aims for this blog which means that, outside of stated projects, I’m only writing about novels that I’ve enjoyed reading.  Now I admired Kavanagh’s novel and I understand the positive attention it has received, but it’s not a novel I’d recommend to everyone.  I will say however that it’s made me think hard about what draws me to certain plots and characters and allow you guys to make up your own minds.

In ‘Things We Have in Common’, Kavanagh makes a stylistic choice that I’d normally adore and a narrative choice that would generally lead me to marking off a book as ‘not for me’.  It’s narrated by a disturbed, self-loathing and generally fairly hateful unreliable protagonist.  All good, as far as I’m concerned.  It also deals with paedophilia, real or suspected.  Not my kind of plot at all – the kind of contrivance that screams of popular paranoia and band-waggon jumping.  It’s a personal choice, but I prefer for my fiction to deal with issues that don’t hit the headlines (see Rankine’s ‘Citizen’), rather than the sensational stories that do.  One thing to admire about Kavanagh’s novel is that it managed to shock me out of my usual responses to both of these core components of the book.

Firstly, although the narrator is at least as hiddeous as the sadists and maniacs who made up the cast of ‘The Viceroys‘, a book I raved about last week, she did not make for an enjoyable read.  Poor Yasmin’s neuroses are much less fun and much more deeply unpleasant than your run-of-the-mill anti-heroine.   The first thing to know about her is that she is bullied horribly at school:
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 Donner 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, a la mode, whatever that means.’
The second thing to know about her is that her father died six years ago, and it seems this was the point when she started gaining weight and losing friends.
As for character traits, Yasmin is selfish, creepy and obsessive.  When we first meet her she is thinking about her popular and, it seems, genuinely nice, classmate Alice.  She wants to be Alice’s friend and spends most of the school day staring at and fantasising about her.  Now, as a fiction lover, I’m the last person in the world to disapprove of a rich imaginary life, but Yasmin’s has a tendancy to slip over into the real world.  Her dreams of rescuing Alice are much more concerned with fame and praise than with preventing harm to her beloved.  In fact, throughout the book, Yasmin’s skewed priorities became a stumbling block to my enjoyment.  I never thought I’d take issue with a novel because the unreliable narrator was too convincingly disturbed, but ‘Things We Have in Common’ has shown me the limits of my sympathy and cynical enjoyment.  I had trouble with the book because I simply could not warm to the protagonist and, for once, this was a real stumbling block for me.

On the other hand, because of the narrative mediation, I was actually much more able to appreciate the way Kavanagh plays on fears of abuse and vulnerability.  The book is far too knowing, and Yasmin far too immature, for this to be a sensationalised presentation of paedophilia.  Ideas about protection versus privacy and role of the internet and media in helping young people stay safe are explored with appropriate sensitivity and perception.

‘Things We Have in Common’ has challenged me as a reader, and for that I admire it. I’m still not sure that it’s a book I’d recommend to everyone, but I’m interested to hear other views on one of the top debuts of 2015.  Now I’m just hoping that I’ll find Kavanagh’s future fiction at least as ambitious and maybe a bit more enjoyable…

For another (less conflicted) review of ‘Things We Have in Common’ see A Little Blog of Books

 

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7 Responses to Unappealing and Unlovable: Why ‘Things We Have in Common’ was one of the top debut novels of 2015

  1. bookskeptic says:

    I bought this book because of all the attention it was receiving, and as much as I admire the twist I just didn’t enjoy it. It may be Yasmine, but I’m also thinking it may be because it didn’t feel real to me, I could not buy into the plot and believe it.

  2. Not sure this one is for me. I don’t necessarily have to like a narrator, but I’m not sure I want Yasmin in my head at all – probably a sign that it is well written, though!

    • There is something unpleasant about having her in my head – but then I was ok with the narrator from ‘The Dinner’ and he’s utterly unsympathetic. I’m not sure what it was about Yasmin that made her less appealing…

  3. Like you, I only review books I’m actively promoting, on the blog, but every now and again a book I’m unable to enthuse about opens up useful thinking and can clarify what I’m after in reading. Which IS to challenge my perceptions and make me pay attention in some way. A really interesting post Shoshi, but I think I’ll not add this to the TBR!

    • The wish to only review the best books is the kind of resolution that does have to be broken at times … I won’t be doing it too often though, there are so many books out there that I do love, I hope it will be rare for me to move into more thoughtful/troubled territory.

  4. Pingback: Two New Debuts: ‘Anatomy of a Soldier,’ by Harry Parker and ‘The Painted Ocean,’ by Gabriel Packard | Shoshi's Book Blog

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