All Our Hidden Gifts- Caroline O’Donaghue

All our hidden gifts by Caroline o donaghue

All Our Hidden Gifts is a quietly ground shaking book from Caroline O’Donaghue, who has published two adult novels, Promising Young Women and Scenes of a Graphic Nature to high acclaim. This is her first young adult novel and with every reflection feels deeper, more resonant, more powerful on the question of identity and self worth- for all, but remarkably for women and the heritage and expectations that women must carry, especially in Ireland. 

Content Notes: Discussion of pressure to have sex, non-detailed confession of upsetting sexual encounters, homophobia expressed to characters including ‘conversion’ arguments, kissing but no scenes of a graphic nature (pun intended )

All our hidden gifts by Caroline o donaghue

16 year old Maeve feels like the odd one out, socially struggling at school, youngest child in a family of hardworking, accomplished geniuses, and she can’t even seem to get her life together let alone remember her Italian verbs. 

Punished with clearing out the detention space affectionately called the Chokey she comes upon a confiscations box filled with curious relics of past girls from the 1990s including a Walkman, and a pack of tarot cards. 

Maeve quickly finds she has an uncanny and prodigious gift for reading the cards and soon her breaks and lunchtimes are filled with eager girls keen to know their fortune. Everyone except for Lily, Maeve’s childhood best friend that she unceremoniously ditched for a ‘cooler’ clique as soon as she got to High School. 

And young girls with anger in their hearts and strong feelings tend to say things they may regret. 

“I wish I had never been friends with you,” I snap. “Lily, I wish you would just disappear.”

As soon as I saw the words tarot fantasy I was like YES! This is the book for me!!!! I thought this was really clever in the way it wrapped divination with Irish history, country music and folklore within a contemporary Irish setting exploring ideas ranging from sibling rivalry to peer aggression, bisexuality and more but most surrounding identity.

All Our Hidden Gifts explores the experiences and pressures that girls and women have faced struggling with their worth and identity, particularly in small city Ireland over the last 30 years; from Maeve’s mother’s academic ambitions away from her family, Harriet’s desperation,  Lily’s social struggles from her differences, Fiona’s dual-heritage dichotomy of belonging and feeling an outsider at the same time, and Maeve struggling to fit in anywhere. The cruelty that bigotry & narcissistic tradition can cause to vulnerable souls.

And all bound up with the inheritance of history and folklore, with the pains of past English occupation and what women in desperation, rage and sadness can conjure from the ether. 

“I’m not very happy at the moment…And I’m trying to make out like I’m fine, but I’m not…if I don’t sort myself out, things are going to get really, really bad.”

Maeve struggles throughout the book with her self worth. Everyone in her family is accomplished, beautiful and highly intelligent, and Maeve is awkward, different and struggles academically leading to a quiet sense of guilt, ‘unbelonging’ and ‘unwantedness’ exacerbated by her mother palming her off to childcare and babysitters whilst a small child as her mother pursued her career stalled by the previous four. 

As an older reader I can feel and recognise the sense of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ just not winning whatever you do in all the female characters. 

Effortlessly cool and beautiful but childlike and vulnerable beneath Fiona tries extra hard with older young men because she feels she doesn’t fit in with her Filipino heritage in the Irish girls school. Maeve’s mother worked her socks off to get her PH.D after doing her socially expected ‘time’ as a mother only to discover a late pregnancy could ruin her efforts of something just for her. 

And the teasing that Maeve gets from her family when she conforms such as being interested in a boy or dressing up only fuelling her low self worth & determined yet woeful detachment from things tainted by others’ projections. 

This ever more so is explored through a male character Roe- Lily’s elder brother

He stretches his hands out and shows me his freshly painted nails. They are aquamarine now.

‘…plumage,’ he concludes with a self-effacing grin.

Roe is bisexual, gender fluid, recently outed to their parents by an errant text, performs with their band in a full length velvet gown and there is undeniable chemistry between them and Maeve. He is bullied & isolated by the boys at his school partly for his Protestantism, but mostly because he doesn’t conform to gendertypical expectations and the boys tease him assuming homosexuality. 

There is a very powerful metaphor for his feelings on gender, sexuality and expression that is too much spoilers to go into but is something that I think more people would understand and resonate with if they were truly honest with themselves.

What I found particularly interesting and empowering was the feelings between Maeve and Roe. 

All he would have to do is turn his head slightly, to angle his body just a couple of inches, and we would be nose to nose, lip to lip. A movement that, if you rounded it down would hardly be a movement at all, but would change everything.

I feel his body turn…in an instant, we are shot through with the electric white light that fills the tunnel. The light breaks something.

It was actually profound and brightly new to see a bisexual character in this context and one necessary to challenge biphobia and the particular attitude against the idea that someone can still be bisexual and choose to be with someone of the opposite sex. 

This isn’t erasing nor negating the queer side of someone’s sexuality in any way, the book is incredibly inclusive as it affirms that people are complicated and that’s ok, that you don’t have to be like everyone else or to do what people ‘expect’ when you don’t quite fit the heterotypical boxes, and neither when you do as we have explored with the girls. 

All our hidden gifts by Caroline o donaghue
All the cards chosen reflect themes and events within the story. Picture created using oracle decks I have personally bought in the past: Brian Froud’s Heart of Faerie deck and Botanical Inspirations Deck from Lynn Araujo with artwork by Pierre-Joseph Redout.

The depiction of magic and cartomancy in the book is beautiful. Down to earth and accurate in both spell construction and the feelings a sensitive reader may feel when ‘reading’ oracle cards (or person, that definition is fluid too) the fizzy fingertips, the twist in the gut, words & pictures just appearing in the mind and mouth it was actually very affirming to read!!

Of course the more fantastical elements were thrilling and have that wobbly primal sense of fear, that you’ve stepped into the faerie ring and are led away in a merrie dance. 

Overall, All Our Hidden Gifts is a fantastic empowering piece for young people to read, an important reminder for older readers that life is not as neat and simple as others may wish but is also a phenomenal piece of contemporary fantasy and fans of The Craft will delight! I’m also thrilled to hear there is a sequel coming in February 22.

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donaghue is published by Walker Books

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