I remember being fifteen. Fifteen was tough, a long, brutal slog that seemed to last from until I was at least half-way through sixteen. Obviously, I remember something rather different than Dawn O’Porter presents in Paper Aeroplanes, the story of two girls growing up in Guernsey in the mid-90s, given that I’m male, Irish and didn’t hit fifteen until after the Millennium, but God do I remember fifteen. Being fifteen sucked. If you offered me a choice between being 15 again or having my legs broken, I’d go fetch the sledgehammer myself. Normally, when I read books about teenagers (I do this regularly enough that you could use the phrase “a lot”) it is teens in exotic alternate universes with pet dragons, fighting evil empires in horrific sacrificial games, or fighting quite literal demons invading the earth. It is a lot of metaphor, escapism and symbolism dressed up in the fantastic. Jumping into the world of Flo and Renée then was quite different, given there are no Gandalfian figures who will steal them out of their lives, take them on a grand adventure and return them equipped to deal with their messy lives. Dawn O’Porter’s story is one where, just like us, the characters have no choice but to suffer through being fifteen. And being fifteen sucked.
O’Porter plays loose and fast with genre convention. For instance, Flo and Renee’s difficult journey to friendship begins at a party where both of them kiss the same boy. The standard dynamic demands that this be a significant hurdle, that this male now becomes a pre-eminent figure in their lives, as they attempt to negotiate their friendship and love for this boy. This novel is smarter, and more realistic, than that, and quickly dismisses both of their alcohol-fuelled interactions with the boy. He is meaningless; a poorly made choice with little or no consequence. Instead their friendship is constructed on a favour, a sprinkle of niceness in an otherwise awful world, and like all proper friendships, a heap of embarrassment. If anything, in fact, embarrassment forms the backbone of the novel; almost all the conflict, the pain and heartbreak can be traced to someone’s shame or guilt. Be it Renee’s inability to buy tampons or Flo’s almost terrified sexual and social inexperience, it is embarrassment, shame and guilt that serve to drive the characters further and further into tragedy.
Renee and Flo start the novel only tangentially aware of each other, as two people who share any number of classes but very little else. The only truly common factor is Sally, Flo’s domineering, controlling “best friend”, who functions as a social adversary for Renee. Sally occupies the classic “mean girl” paradigm; controlling, belittling, bullying in order to maintain a status quo which privileges her authority. O’Porter manages her characterisation with a certain deftness that makes her both believably vile and pathetically, even obviously, clichéd. We wait, somewhat gleefully, for her inevitable comeuppance – a vicarious catharsis for all those analogue characters from our own teens – and when it comes, we’re left uneasily feeling sympathetic. Sally, however, does not actually function as the novel’s antagonist. In all honesty, being fifteen, the status quo, biological and social reality, the totality of their entire lives, everything serves as the enemy. Renee’s world is constructed on grief, her sister’s impending mental deterioration, her grandparents’ inability to cope, and the guilt caused by an empty relationship with a boy she isn’t able to love and isn’t able to be friends with it. Flo, on the other hand, is caged and scarred by the expectations of others. Her mother’s disinterested parenting leaves Flo to raise not only herself, but her younger sister as well, while Sally sets unrealistic and contrived standards as a means to maintain social primacy, and Flo struggles to provide a sense of affirmation and purpose for her father.
While much of their tragedy also functions as comedy, it is that black comedy born of cynicism that we can maintain only because personal experience has taught us these familiar events, and the subsequent, awful embarrassments, are ultimately survivable. That doesn’t necessarily undercut the pain or awfulness that Flo and Renee are living through, any more than it reduces the intensity of our own remembered horrors of being fifteen. It is just that, from a slight remove, it is possible to see that fifteen cannot last forever. If there is one singular point to the novel, it could be that; that fifteen is not infinite and that it is, ultimately, survivable.
There was one scene in this book that was an eye-opener. That, for me is the sign of a good book, presenting you with something you’ve never seen a certain way before. Without giving too much away, it involves a high-level of intoxication and the application of a feminine hygiene product, which is, in this instance, a disastrous combination. It isn’t the reality of the menstrual cycle that shocked me. I’m rationally acquainted with the idea, but this is, perhaps, the first time I’ve ever come face-to-face with the practicality of it, with the spiritual significance. The only similar scene I can think of is the opening of Stephen King’s Carrie, but rather than horror, I think in the main this scene is meant to be funny. And that is what has thrown me, that the reality of genital bleeding becomes so habitual as to become the source for humour. It’s a remarkable idea (for a semi-grown man writing this in a tee-shirt with a cartoon character emblazoned on the chest); that women are capable of finding comedy in something that, from an outside perspective, seems like an unfair biological quirk.
All in all, I loved Paper Aeroplanes. Funny in tragedy, heart-breaking in comedy, insightful and clever. I have already started pushing it on friends and family, and have picked up the sequel, Goose. I wish this book had been out in 2001; I think fifteen-year-old me might have benefitted from the insight. I think some deeply personal embarrassments might have been avoided with access to some of the ideas it presents, but then again, fifteen being so terrible, I’m sure I’d have found something equally awful to replace them with.