As a reader whose school days are well behind him (though not too far from the 1990s when the book is set) and with the wrong set of chromosomes for the presumed audience; I approached Paper Aeroplanes by Dawn O’Porter a little warily…
The basic premise: it's the mid-1990s, and fifteen-year-old Guernsey schoolgirls, Renée and Flo, are not really meant to be friends. Thoughtful, introspective and studious Flo couldn't be more different to ambitious, extroverted and sexually curious Renée. But Renée and Flo are united by loneliness, loss and their dysfunctional families, and an intense bond is formed. Although there are obstacles to their friendship (namely Flo's jealous ex-best friend and Renée's growing infatuation with Flo's brother), fifteen is an age where anything can happen, where life stretches out before you, and when every betrayal feels like the end of the world. For Renée and Flo it is the defining the time of their lives.
As it happens, I needn’t have been wary - from the very first few pages, the author had me absolutely hooked on Renée and Flo’s stories, told from alternating viewpoints within the chapters. This isn’t some rose-tinted school days nostalgia-fest, and Renée and Flo are both flawed characters, but I completely bought into their friendship - I was rooting for them to get together and mentally booed every time Flo’s borderline psychotic ‘friend’ Sally came onto the scene.
The thing is, with a few obvious differences, this book is relevant to all age groups, and anyone who has ever been a teenager… The concerns are broadly the same: familial isolation, obsession – generally ending in disaster - with losing virginity, low-self-esteem, teachers as the enemy or as parent substitutes, bodily awkwardness and the need to be ‘in’ at any cost. This book is certainly as relevant to boys as girls and especially so for the ‘Grange Hill’ generation; where nostalgia was to be found, if not rose-tinted!
Dawn O’Porter is not one to gloss over the realities of her female protagonists bumpy journey to womanhood – the confusion, anxiety and downright inconvenience of periods are regularly depicted (as a content warning, this book has more graphic blood scenes than your average Stephen King novel..,). These elements are by no means gratuitous or intended to challenge, they are simply told matter-of-factly with various tones of humour and occasional embarrassment (including a particularly excruciating scene cautioning against wearing white jeans!). Sex gets the same treatment – at once mysterious and sought after yet generally awkward and anticlimactic for the first time (the inconvenience of spilt semen is not romanticised here!!).
But that is not to say the main issue, as it were, of this novel is bodily fluids… this is an engaging emotional rollercoaster I really wasn’t expecting. Nostalgia is a funny old emotion, and this book is full to the brim of it. I was at times transported back to my own teenage years (which are much further back than I realised) and every raw emotion of love, lust, jealousy, sadness and extreme happiness as the memories attached to them came back to me. If you want to laugh out loud, feel sad, remember the good and the bad times of this unique time of life, then Paper Aeroplanes is a book worth reading.
Downsides? Not really, though O’Porter’s writing is simple and without any mannered linguistic flair, this is clearly a deliberate move and her conversational / diary-like style suits the genre perfectly.
My only gripe is that things wrap up a bit too neatly at the end and felt a bit rushed because of it. There is now, however, a sequel published (Goose), which will hopefully elaborate on how things have panned out. The fact that I am keen to catch up on the misadventures of Renée and Flo (and evil Sally!) in later life is testament to the charm of this book and its characters.
Next up was due to be an excursion to the neighbouring Channel Island, the Bailiwick of Jersey. However, sadly, the literature of this location tends to be largely based around the German Occupation of the Islands in WW2; an event which seems as embedded in the national psyche as the gun emplacements that remain dotted across the landscape. As such, novels tend to be set in the 1940s and a mix of action/romance for the most part.
Therefore, I am grateful to Matt Fiott, Executive Director of Arts Jersey, whose organisation not only demonstrated that Jersey has a thriving contemporary arts scene, but also kindly responded to my query by suggesting a modern day novel set predominantly in Jersey that sounds fascinating (What I Tell You In The Dark by John Samuel). Sadly, the book in question is not in print here in Australia and proved beyond the means of Amazon Australia or other booksellers down under; so I am currently waiting for it the travel around the globe itself, from an online bookseller in the UK.
However, this presents me with a chance for an unscheduled visit to the Isle of Sark, a royal fief which is separate from the UK and which forms part of the Channel Islands under the jurisdiction of the Bailiwick of Guernsey. It is probably one of the most unusual places on my entire journey - having a population of just 500 (including the nearby island of Brecqhou) and an area of just 2.10 square miles (5.44 km2).
Sark is one of the few remaining places in the world where cars are banned from roads and only tractors and horse-drawn vehicles are allowed… even the Sark Ambulance Service operates via two tractor-drawn ambulances.
Until reforms in 2008, Sark was the last feudal state in Europe. The Seigneur of Sark was, before the constitutional reforms of 2008, the head of the feudal government (in the case of a woman, the title was Dame). Many of the laws, particularly those related to inheritance and the rule of the Seigneur, had changed little since they were enacted in 1565 under Queen Elizabeth I. Whilst passing over a number of powers to the Crown in 2008, the Seigneur still retains the sole right on the island to keep pigeons and is the only person allowed to keep an unspayed dog!
Whilst Sark has, as you might guess, no airport it does have a regular ferry link with the neighbouring island of Guernsey. The Isle of Sark Shipping Company departs St Peter Port Harbour in Guernsey at 9.30am and arrives 9 miles and 55 minutes later at Sark’s Maseline Harbour for just £13.75 one-way.
Given Sark’s tiny population one might imagine finding a suitable book to be even more difficult; however I struck lucky with this and found a book which is already starting to draw me in – The Last Kings of Sark, by Rosa Rankin-Gee, of which more soon….