Reviewed. Dawn O’Porter: Paper Aeroplanes

Dawn O’Porter’s first novel, Paper Aeroplanes was released yesterday.

dawn o'porter paper aeroplanes review

I am sure I’m not alone in my unending love for Dawn Porter. Or, Dawn O’Porter as I should now call her (Dawn changed her name after her marriage to Chris O’Dowd). Dawn is perhaps best known for her hard-hitting documentaries. Through my late teens, I devoured her hour long investigations into eating disorders, geishas, swinging, and many other mysterious areas of a 21st century female’s life.

Naturally, when it was announced she was writing a novel, I couldn’t wait to read it. In fact, I was so keen that I skipped down to Waterstones at 9:15 yesterday  morning, and they had to go upstairs and unload it from a box. The eagerest of beavers.

Paper Aeroplanes tells the story of two 15-year-old girls, Flo and Renee. Flo is thoughtful, introspective, and beaten down by her dominant ‘best friend’ Sally. Flo dreams of standing up for herself, yet fails to find the courage to do so. Renee, which O’Porter admits is based on herself in many ways, is outgoing, flirtatious and sexually curious.

But, what the pair share, is a crippling loneliness. Flo lives with a mother she hates and an older brother who hates her. Renee’s mother died of breast cancer when she was seven, so now lives with her silent, obtuse grandparents and anorexic sister. Dysfunctionality, and a whole lot of chance, brings these two classroom acquaintances together to become friends.

Paper Aeroplanes is, in essence, a novel about friendship. The heightened teenage emotions we see this through give everything a drama. But, most importantly, it is a time in our lives we have all experienced. The highs when things go right with friendship, boys and school feel like the best thing that could ever happen. But, on the flipside, when anything goes wrong, it is a complete catastrophe.

What I liked in particular about Paper Aeroplanes was the way the novel was structured. Alternating first-person narratives from Flo and Renee give a personal touch that is so necessary to telling a teenage story. If it was told in straight third-person, the effect would have been detached, and the effect of introspection would never have been achieved. Crucially, we never hear any other perspective than Flo or Renee. We never hear from Renee’s grandparents or sick sister; we never hear from Sally the bully. Whilst from a reader’s point of view this is is some ways a shame, it only heightens the one-sided emotions we all feel. After all, none of us will ever know what’s going on inside someone’s head. All we ever know is what we think.

In terms of plot, O’Porter doesn’t hold back. In just under 300 pages, there are twists and turns a plenty to keep the reader page-turning. At the end of the novel one plot line does trail into the ridiculous, but it doesn’t seem to really matter.

What does matter, is that you WILL laugh. A lot. From periods to homework, and from PE to sex, we have all been there at some point. That is the simple beauty of a novel like this- it’s something we can all relate to in a very nostalgic way. It’s very authentic in this sense- O’Porter admits her own teenage diaries were a real inspiration for the novel, and this is definitely evident.

From a personal point of view, Paper Aeroplanes touched many raw nerves I still have from my teenage years. Feelings of loneliness are always the hardest to confront- I defy anyone not to feel some kind of empathy, even if it’s only the humorous parts, with Flo or Renee.

Above all, this is a stunning debut novel by Dawn O’Porter. She writes so beautifully and charges each event with so much emotion, it’s hard to believe she hasn’t been writing Young Adult fiction for years. She captures teenage life and bottles it perfectly. Highly, highly recommended.

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Comments
One Response to “Reviewed. Dawn O’Porter: Paper Aeroplanes”
  1. Flo says:

    Well Dawn, where do I start? It’s Flo here. My mum told me you were bringing out a book and I didn’t really think too much about it until Monday when my husband showed me some reviews/previews. Alarm bells started ringing so I took a look on the internet myself and saw your interview on sugarscape.com. It was like a blow to the stomach, a slap in the face; I sat in my kitchen and cried.

    Incredulous is a good way to describe how I feel, along with: hurt, upset, outraged, let down, angry, humiliated, sad…the list goes on. What did you think you were doing? Watching you say one particular part in the interview (about the character Sally) left me breathless, like a vice around my chest:

    “I wasn’t bullied and I wasn’t the bully but I’ve experienced bullying if that makes any sense. There was a girl in our year that was bullied and, kind of bullied by everyone. And looking back you realise what she must have gone through and what I kind of did with Sally was made my whole class into one person and to just put all of that evil into her… And it really destroyed Flo because Sally and Flo were best friends before Flo met Renee and I think the idea that you know, that Flo’s going to take this insecurity through her life with her…and what you see is that she’s really damaged by what Sally did.”

    I wouldn’t describe myself as damaged by what you did back then Dawn but I agree, I still carry insecurities from the time that you bullied me. And this is the problem I have with the way you are promoting your book, that it “honestly portrays teenage life” when you are lying through your teeth. You, me, the whole of our class from school and many others aside, all know that you bullied me. Perhaps this is a way for you to feel less responsible, trying to blame everyone else and re-write history. It might have been cathartic for you to write and say these things, perhaps it eased your conscience but it was a selfish thing to do to me.

    Granted, nobody stood up for me or challenged you when you were bullying me at school but that doesn’t take away responsibility for what you did. How I remember you so clearly stood up in front of the class doing impressions of me and talking about how annoying I was and that you hated me. I would walk into the classroom to get my stuff ready for class and there you were, ridiculing me and everyone laughing at me. Some would be sniggering, a few trying not to laugh as I approached my desk. I tried to keep my eyes down, it hurt less that way. Oh how I wanted to cry, it was so humiliating – sitting at my desk with everyone staring and laughing, their gaze burning through my uniform like acid on my skin. It seeped right through to the core of me, my stomach would flip and I wanted to be sick, to disappear. How could you be so cruel? It was intolerable and you kept on and on…

    You said it yourself, “bullies are vile and over the top compared to everyone else and that’s what makes them leader of the pack” which could be a description of you back then. Nobody had the courage to take you on I mean, look at how you treated me. Who would want to risk being on the receiving end of that? Side order of public humiliation anyone? You were always so over the top, wanting…needing to be centre of attention. In the end you stopped, but only because the sisters ‘S and L’ told you to otherwise they’d stop talking to you. That would have been social suicide for you so you packed it in eventually. Not out of guilt or remorse but for popularity.

    Everything was about trying to make people laugh – no matter what the cost to me was. You even had to sit at the teacher’s desk in front of the blackboard to eat lunch, in front of the audience of the class. Munching on your bright pink taramasalata white bread sandwiches (wrapped in greaseproof paper) and smirking at my floppy brown bread marmite sandwiches (suffocating in clingflim). That kind of sums up how different we were, like taramasalata and marmite.

    And yet despite everything we were great friends in the beginning. I’m still studious Dawn, almost 35 and doing another postgrad course. Studying was my escape, the part of me that my stepdad couldn’t take away or get to. I wanted to succeed academically, it was my escape plan. Mess still stresses me out. In an old diary the entry on 20 Dec 1990 reads:

    “Mum and Dad went Christmas shopping. I tidied my wardrobe. Watched Pretty Woman on video. Had the baby. Bed at 10.30”

    And on 15 Dec 1990:

    “After ballet I went to Dawn’s house to write our disco invitations”

    It was all so innocent then. I recall we hung out with some boys one day when we must have been about 12 or 13, the ‘W’ brothers I think. I was so shy. I had no idea how to be around them and you were always so outgoing and confident. Do you remember the time you slept over at my house and we made a cooked breakfast – except that we cocked all the timings up so decided to stick the fried eggs in the oven and they turned to rubber? We packed up laughing in my kitchen, waving these eggs around, tears of laughter in our eyes. I had a Nutella obsession after my mum got me some, she’d read it was what “all the supermodels ate”. You used to say that I looked like Naomi Campbell, that I was really beautiful…if only I didn’t have such big dark circles under my eyes. Nobody else had complimented me like that, you could see that.

    I was always tired had had circles under my eyes because my little sister, 10 years younger than us, never slept and I helped out all the time with her care. She was a very difficult infant and young child and was finally diagnosed as on the autism spectrum when she was 10. My mum often relied on my help with her because having an autistic child is hard, never mind having to deal with the domestic violence we lived in. The constant psychological and emotional abuse with drunken outbursts of intimidation and violence from my stepfather (my little sister’s dad) took its toll.

    Dysfunctional is a good way to describe my teenage home life. There were so many arguments and fights. I was constantly put down and told I was unlovable, nobody would ever marry me because I was a horrible person. My stepdad would tell me I was ‘nothing’ and criticize every aspect of my appearance. At night, when he had my mum pinned up against the wall by her throat, knife in hand, I would sit next to the phone. I’d memorised the number for the Guernsey police station, just in case. It’s no wonder I was protective of my sister. Her dad was found dead in our garden shortly after our GCSE’s and when my mum had separated from him. His last twisted act of abuse was to kill himself on our doorstep and hide his money, hoping to leave us with nothing.

    We bumped into each other late one night in Town Church Square, outside the Albion. Not sure how long ago, several years at least that’s for sure. In the darkness you stopped to talk to me, you said you felt bad about what happened at school because I never retaliated or said anything nasty about you, I just carried on being nice to you. I don’t like to be angry and bitter for too long Dawn, life’s too short for that. And what else could I do? I cared for you because once upon a time you were my friend. You went from being sisterly and taking me under your wing to being my bully, the source of so much pain. You were one of the first to break my heart. Not in a romantic way, I mean that I learned about those feelings of betrayal, hurt and confusion that comes when you really care for someone and they stab you in the back – publicly. You knew how screwed up my home life was, that I was vulnerable and a nice person and you abused that. That’s what bullies are about though, aren’t they?

    That was then. I’m not a victim any more, I’m a survivor. Now I have the courage and the means to defend myself and stand up for what I believe in. I have held a long and dignified silence on what you did but I won’t let you continue to abuse my kindness. If I’d wanted ‘revenge’ I could have dished the dirt on you long ago but that’s not what this is about. I have a kind heart Dawn, I know that your childhood was difficult. We were both lonely really, and a bit lost – more lost than your average teenage girl. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you having your mum wrenched from your life at such a young age. My sister lost her dad at a similar age and I have also watched the affects of separation and loss playing out in my step-children’s lives – so I get that. We were young…I had finally started moving toward a peaceful place of equanimity about you bullying me. Over the years I have felt great compassion for you but this is too much; I can’t keep turning the other cheek, especially when you’re an adult now and can be held accountable for your actions.

    You do not have the right to plagiarise my life in this way, to profit from my suffering and not even admit to the part you played in it. You admit that you used your own diary when writing the book and say at the beginning that the characters are fictional. Apart from Renee which is based on you. However, it’s plainly obvious from reading it that it’s based on only a smidgen of fiction. The rest comprises of real events and people just muddled up and switched around a bit. To concentrate on ‘Flo’ here…just look at all those autobiographical details that belong to me. Her name even sounds like mine, her birthday was in the Christmas period and she was skinny with long brown hair. Sticking a big pair of boobs on her and changing her brother does not make it okay. Mmm, let me think – and who was that girl that everyone picked on during our GCSE year? Ah yes, that was me! And everyone will know that. What is it about humiliating me in front of everyone, was once not enough?

    You may have left Guernsey for the bright lights but I still live there. I bump into people from school all the time. Even before you doing this it was difficult. When old ‘classmates’ say hi and ask me how I’m doing I still get paranoid and embarrassed. It brings back bad memories. I didn’t stay on at College for my A Levels despite being a promising student. How on earth could I? You’d well and truly ruined that for me, I was the class joke. In fact, I left Guernsey. Desperate for a fresh start at 16 I left home and everything I’d ever known, coming back for school holidays.

    Your actions were pivotal in shaping my life and the decisions I’ve made. I spent most of my 20’s drunk because that way, I could find a way to not care or worry about what people might be saying about me. I could push all the feelings of the past aside. But I couldn’t do it forever, I would have self-destructed. I still find it hard to trust women and have hardly any close female friends. I am too afraid to try and resurrect friendships from school, from before you started the hate campaign against me. Unlike you, I am disconnected from those old friends and watch their lives from the outside (their weddings, having children etc) like you forced me to at school. Walking into rooms full of people at social engagements or even bars and restaurants fills me with dread, the old feelings appear from that hot spring of humiliation deep inside me. As you said in your interview Dawn, I have taken this insecurity with me into my adult life. You have had a profound affect on me.

    When I went to university I changed my name because I wanted to cut myself off from all the rumours of those school days. My old name was synonymous with lies and insults; all the cruel jibes that people made about me. I remember the day I was taken out of class and carted off to social services to be interviewed. Over the following few days I was also interviewed by police and was absent from school. When I returned there were all these rumours about how I’d got pregnant and had an abortion. I’d lost a bit of weight from the stress and was like a stick. I didn’t know how to handle what had happened, what to say to the rumours and the form tutor wasn’t exactly going to announce to the class at register that I’d been raped in my own home by a man in his late twenties (I was 14). So I just buried my head in my books and got on with it. Dawn, I don’t think that you can write about under-age girls having sex with older guys in such an off-hand way – as you have in the book. It’s a very complex and serious subject.

    School had been my safe place, somewhere to get away from the reality of home. It was somewhere I could relax, I enjoyed learning. The bullying changed all that, school filled me with fear and dread. I came to hate it and in the end I was bunking off school. Leaving College was one of the happiest days of my life, I was utterly miserable there by the time we got to our GCSE year. I remember when our form had been moved to the pink room and walking in to find you yet again bad mouthing and making fun of me. Something inside me broke, I’d reached my limit.

    Hot Key Books describe your book as “incredibly honest” but how would your publisher and the people buying it feel if they realised that you were a bully? Is it right that you should be gaining money and celebrity from this? Perhaps if you’d ‘fessed up, taken responsibility for what you did and used the book as a way of raising awareness about bullying we could both have used it as a way of getting some closure on what happened between us. Instead, you are being dishonest and present your character as this benign, loyal friend. I was genuinely happy for you when I found out you were getting married, did you get my message? I thought that perhaps now you could be happy, feel loved and secure and not keep going through life as if it’s one big popularity contest. All I want, is to be able to leave the past behind me. Those years at college were so painful for me. Instead, you are thrusting it in front of me – so cock sure that I am still too meek to stand up for myself. I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of the things that have happened to me and I think I deserve the chance to move on with my life. You owe me that much.

    Dawn, I’m asking you, woman to woman: before you publish a sequel or take this book any further, spare a thought for me.

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