Contrary to what people in my Secondary School may have told you, I have never been a teenage girl. So, when journalist & presenter Dawn O’Porter released her debut novel following the friendship of two 15 year old girls, it wasn’t one that I immediately thought I’d pick up… But then it turned up on the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize long list 2014, so I took a chance & stepped into the small island life of Guernsey, circa 1994. Then I laughed. And cried. And clutched the book to my heart.
Paper Aeroplanes follows the lives of two 15 year old girls, both very different in personality, but both from equally turbulent home lives, going through their GCSE year at Secondary School. Renée is a rambunctious, outgoing, troublemaker. After the death of her mother, her father absconds to start a new family, leaving her & her little sister Nell living on Guernsey with their grandparents. GCSE’s & her future are the last things on Renée’s mind as she tries her hardest to find anything & everything to keep her distracted from her grandfather’s anger, her sister’s eating disorder & missing her mum. Flo is quiet, insular & compliant, living with her Mother, older brother Justin & baby sister Abi while her Dad & Mum try to work through a marriage crisis. As well as being ignored & pushed around at home, she also has to endure her drama queen of a “best friend” Sally at school, who builds up her own sense of importance by putting Flo down – Her looks, dress sense, etc – knowing full well that she’ll never fight back. During a drunken house party & a misplaced tampon, a strange, eclectic friendship blossoms between the extroverted Renée & the insular Flo – One that must be kept in secret, lest Sally makes both girl’s lives a living hell. Throughout a year of stress in school, constant family crisis & all the maddening developments of Teenage years, the two girls grow up in more ways than one, & start to understand the world from a greater perspective than themselves.
As always, I keep my mind open when going into a new book, & let me be the first to say that this is NOT a “girl’s book”. There’s so much warmth in this novel that I think it could appeal to boys & girls, adults & teens alike. Not unsurprisingly, I felt a great deal of familiarity with Flo, being an introverted, quiet teenager myself, & her inner turmoil over following Sally’s ever whim & fancy simply for the sake of tradition very much struck true with my own experiences with someone from school. As much as Renée’s personality wasn’t as in sync with my own, Dawn uses her home life & inner monologue to explain her outlandish, wild behaviour in a sombre, tragically directionless way that makes her character heartbreakingly lost. She’s so determined to find any distraction to take her away from her pain that she comes across not as a bratty wild-child, but as someone desperate for attention, & once I’d gotten that side of her, I started to understand her much better – I know there are times when I’ve just wanted to scream my lungs out just to get the tension out. Both characters have such passion & love for each other; it makes their blossoming friendship so amazing to follow. It’s full of raw, open honesty & absolutely selfless innocence. The two characters struggle with their lives, but also snap with energy & wit throughout the story, & both have fantastically satisfying character arcs – especially Flo, whose transition from Wallflower-dom is a EXACTLY what I wanted to happen for her. The supporting cast is a really heinous rogue’s gallery, with Sally topping the bill. She’s an awful human being, full of the petty bile of pretty teenagers in a small town school, & I think I haven’t really shouted at a character quite like that since Delores Umbridge of Harry Potter fame. Every scene she crops up in sent memories rocketing back into my brain of people in school who really suffered from “Big Fish in a Small Pond” syndrome. A close second in the list of awful human beings, Flo’s older brother Justin is a manipulative, sex-obsessed teenager who has no qualms about ruining friendships & lives just to get a chance for some action.
Although the plot is set over quite a spread of time (an entire school year), it feels well compacted, dashing past the quiet parts, & focusing on the long, endless days that we all remember so well from our own youth. Dawn manages to make entire afternoons last forever, & makes the reader’s heart burst with emotion over simple shared experiences. She’s dug into her own experiences & come out with a whole plethora of rich emotions across a dizzying spectrum, & the whole book has this veneer of nostalgia that makes it feel so much more real & warm, like the whole story is draped in a sepia coating that makes it feel like rich, comforting honey. At the same time, Dawn deals with some very important, & much ignored, issues of growing up for girls in a non-preachy, & hilariously down-to-earth way, & I think it’s a very important aspect of the book because it makes some scary & secret ideas much more accessible & helps bring them into everyday life.
There were moments of this book that made me cheer, bits that made me smile & reminisce, & bits that made me genuinely sob (Spoiler-free but… the Ashes on the wall, me oh my. I was on a TRAIN O’Porter!) – Paper Aeroplanes is a powerfully succinct book, short & to the point, revelling in emotion, drama & friendship. It’s a touching story that I urge on anyone who wants a chance to remember those teenage days.
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P.S. – Dawn’s book DOES deal with themes of a sexual nature, & employs strong language (as most 15 year olds do) – So be wary of letting girls pre-teens pick it up!
Dawn O’Porter continues the saga of Renée & Flo with Goose, due on the 3rd of April from HotKey Books.