Paper Aeroplanes by Dawn O’Porter

30th Apr 2013


Dawn O’Porter is best known for her work as a print and broadcast journalist, and has been involved in documentaries on subjects ranging from childbirth to polygamy. She is also the author of erotic memoir Diaries of an Internet Lover, and this year sees the publication of her first novel.

Paper Aeroplanes is a coming-of-age tale rooted deeply in the battlefield of teenage girl friendships. Fifteen-year-old Flo has a miserable, recently separated family and a ‘best friend’ who bullies her endlessly.

Renée is isolated from her grief-stricken family, with no one to talk to about it because her friends (and even boyfriend) are really more acquaintances than anything else.

O'Porter has really dug deep in to the memory of what it feels like to be a teenage girl, and this creates a sense of nostalgia far beyond the references to Wotsits and Sunny DelightInevitably, despite the obstacles they find each other, and find solace from the loneliness and neglect and bereavement. Coping with death, particularly parental death, is a strong theme in this story, surely inspired by the loss of O’Porter’s mother from breast cancer when she was a child.

If the emphasis on bereavement makes Paper Aeroplanes sound like a dark and depressing tale, I should clarify that it isn’t. More than anything else, this is a story of friendship, specifically that encompassing best-friendship that buoys you when everything else threatens to weigh you down, and Renée and Flo certainly have more burdens than most.

One of the most striking things about this novel is that terrible things sometimes happen to good characters, and bad characters don’t necessarily redeem themselves or receive their comeuppance. There is rarely a hint of serendipity or fate; at its most stripped back this is a story about people coping with the cards they are dealt, some more successfully than others.

O’Porter has really dug deep in to the memory of what it feels like to be a teenage girl, and this creates a sense of nostalgia far beyond the references to Wotsits and Sunny Delight.

Reading this story as an adult feels a little like watching a car crash in slow motion – you know full well the decisions they are making are the wrong ones, because you made them when you were fifteen. Occasionally I found myself wanting to wave my arms frantically at the pages shouting, “No, stop! Don’t do that! It will end badly!”

But of course, they don’t stop, and the things that you know are going to happen do happen (although, it’s worth noting that they are also some unexpected twists in the tale).

Paper Aeroplanes takes teenage humiliation to the extreme, and there are a few scenes when your suspension of disbelief stutters, because surely no one’s teenage years were that embarrassing.

This is a light read, marketed in the YA genre but could also be placed in to that crossover ‘New Adult’ category. The only thing that made it slightly taxing was that the two main characters’ stories converged too quickly, before I’d quite nailed down who was who. Perhaps if Renée and Flo had spoken in distinct narrative voices it might have been easier to lock down a sense of character.

On the surface, this book comes across as a bit ‘safe’, but actually when I tried to justify that claim I realised it’s not the case at all. Paper Aeroplanes does not shy away from death, neglect, sex, puberty, anorexia or teen pregnancy.

The illusion of ‘safety’ comes from the fact that Renée and Flo are two young women who are so familiar with harrowing things, that they take it all in their stride. O’Porter does not create overblown drama, but subtly portrays the fact that sometimes all you can do is get on with it.

Actually, the drama is created from silly teenage mistakes far more often than it is from seemingly life-shattering events, and isn’t that quite often what it’s like in the brain of a teenager?

My only genuine frustration with this novel was the truly pointless epilogue (that’s probably a tautology of sorts), until I remembered that Paper Aeroplanes is part one of a two-book series, so the brief scene set in the following school year is most likely a preview of book two.

The true testament to the success of this book is that I do want to find out what happens to the characters in the future. I am invested in Renée and Flo, and as a result thoroughly invested in the future of Dawn O’Porter: novelist.

Paper Aeroplanes is being published by Hot Key Books in May, and is available from Foyles, Amazon or your local indie bookstore.

Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended for: Ladies who were teenagers in the early 90s, and lovers of Thelma and Louise style friendship stories.

Other recommended reading: Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher.

Cariad Martin