When it came to writing her first Young Adult novel, the Cork writer found herself revisiting a petty teenage drama that she had never stopped feeling bad about
The year I was born, my father survived a plane crash. He was on his way to see Ireland play Italy in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, in what was the most legendary football game of Ireland’s career. He had somehow not only swung himself tickets, but had hitch-hiked a ride in a private plane there. The plane went down, and my dad thought he was going to die, leaving behind three children under 10 and one — me — still in his wife’s stomach.
It is probably the most amazing story of anyone I know. The chaos, the drama, the Italia ’90 of it all. But you know what? I don’t really know anything about it. The details are hazy, and every time I ask my dad about it, he seems vague, as if he can’t quite remember himself. “Were you scared?” “Oh yes, I was praying. I thought I was going to die.” “Did you really?” “I don’t know. I must have?”
I know almost nothing about my dad’s plane crash. Writing all this down, I am sure I am getting some of the details wrong. But I know everything about the year he moved to Cork from Waterford, aged 16. I know how angry he was with his father, who seemed to plan the move on a whim. I know he left a girlfriend behind, the great love of his young life, and that he sent her letters and tried to run away back to Waterford to be with her. I know that he couldn’t understand anyone’s Cork accent, and was teased at school, and was full of bone-deep loneliness that still changes the expression on his face, 55 years later. He talks about going to the cinema alone, and about having no friends, and about his schoolwork suffering.
My father remembers nothing about the plane crash; my father remembers everything about being 16 and having no friends.
I’m telling you this, not because I’m trying to tell you about my father or about plane crashes, but because I think it highlights something real and disturbing about us all. We spend so much on making memories. We pay for bungee jumps, and camel rides, and we agree to terrible uphill hikes in 30-degree heat, all in the name of making memories that we might one day look back on. But we rarely actually look back on any of them.
What we actually look back on are the memories we made before the age of 18. The awkward phases, the bad teachers, the staunchly held beliefs. The petitions. Oh, Christ, the endless petitions. I started one to ban a brand of chocolate in the school shop, and another to stop animal testing. I remember the animal testing one very well, because I had absolutely no intention of sending it to a local TD or anything. I had just heard, vaguely, someone talking about animal testing in UCC. The purpose of this petition was not to save animals, but to have an excuse to go door to door, so I would eventually get to meet the two cute brothers who had moved in near me. I had seen them at the bus stop and I wanted to find out where they lived. I had to get 120 signatures before I got to the Cute Brother house. When one of them opened the door, I audibly gasped, and then asked them if they would like to end animal testing. That was the first and last time we ever spoke.
I remember everything about that embarrassing petition; I remember nothing about a long weekend I had in Budapest in 2019. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because my first Young Adult book is coming out, and with it is the frequent question: how do you write for teenagers? It comes up in almost every interview, and there is, unfortunately, only one answer.
The only way to write for teenagers is to spend so long in your own memories that you are drowning in shame, choking on embarrassment, and so disgusted by your young self that you want to put your head in the toilet and pay someone else to flush it.
All Our Hidden Gifts is fiction, but under every made-up story is a tiny germ of truth, and the truth in this case is the horrible things teen girls do to the people they are most fascinated by. All Our Hidden Gifts is, ultimately, about the “weird friend”. Everyone has had a “weird friend”; everyone, if they are interesting, has been a “weird friend”. It doesn’t take much to be deemed weird. Being weird could mean that you are playing with Barbies for just a few months longer than everyone else. It could mean that you fancy the wrong one in the Backstreet Boys (justice for Howie). Being weird at a girls’ school could mean that your parents have simply forgotten to give you one of the many objects that are necessary for managing puberty — a bra, deodorant, discreet panty liners — and as a result you are now floppy, smelly, and you have bulky knickers. All of these things are pointed out by your peers; all of these things are presented to your friendship group as evidence to no longer be friends with you.
As I say: almost everyone who has gone through adolescence has either abandoned a friend or been abandoned themselves. I don’t know one adult without a horrifying story about this. With boys, it is done fiercely. A friend of mine has an awful, Lord of the Flies-style story about being taken into some woods and pelted with rocks by his former friends, just so he got the message that he was no longer welcome. With girls, there tends to be a coldly diplomatic air to proceedings. You are not told. You are simply frozen out. I remember waiting in town for hours for a friend, and having her parents wearily lie on the phone to me, to say she was out. I remember her blanking me days later. But equally, I remember being that girl, the one who does the freezing. In my teens I struck up a sudden and intense friendship with someone who I found hilarious; my friends at the time instructed me that she was hilarious in the wrong way, and that she needed to go.
I was told all this on the phone, by a girl who I thought I would be friends with forever but who I haven’t seen in years. Predictably, I remember everything about that phone call. I remember that my mother was away at the time, and my father couldn’t understand what had made me so upset. He must have suspected I was pregnant, or being groomed online, or suffering one of the many other teenage-girl textbook illnesses that we hear about young girls experiencing. But it wasn’t any of those things. It was simply a Teen Girl Freeze, and it is the most devastating social tool on earth.
I would like to tell you that I was a good person, a mature young woman, and a kind friend; I was not. She was a new friend, and they were old ones, so I fell in line. It’s a small story, a petty teen drama, but I’ve never really stopped thinking about it, or feeling bad that it happened. It was the germ of truth that informed All Our Hidden Gifts: a story about a girl who abandons her oldest friend, and it feeling like the end of the world. I wanted to create a novel where it really is the end of the world. Where a hole is torn in the universe, where the power of the Teen Girl Freeze literally makes an Irish town freeze over, and where the uneven magical balance of the world threatens the lives of everyone she loves.
There are revenge demons, and spells, and tarot cards. It can be violent, and hateful, and often a little nightmarish.
“It’s quite scary!” a friend told me, after reading an advanced copy. “I know,” I replied. “But that’s being a teenage girl.”
‘All Our Hidden Gifts’ by Caroline O’Donoghue