Following the success of her biography/feminist polemic How to be a Woman, British columnist Caitlin Moran whizzes her non-fiction witticisms into a novel that pushes semi-autobiographical to mostly-autobiographical territory.
How to build a Girl follows Johanna Morrigan in 1990’s Wolverhampton, a chubby fourteen year old on a council estate longing for boys, adventures and embarrassing herself spectacularly on local news after winning a poetry competition. The ‘building’ element of the title is Johanna’s reinvention as Dolly Wilde, her Goth music critic alter-ego who lands a job at a national music magazine. Coaxing herself to smoke, raiding the local library’s CD catalogue and working out the right bands to rip to shreds in her reviews, Dolly is a Northern lass roaming London in charity shop threads amongst the chaos and crumbling finances her family face.
For those who have read How to be a Woman, this will all feel frightfully familiar: Moran wrote for indie mag Melody Maker after having her first novel published in her teens. Moran’s first novel also explored life on a council estate and the mayhem of lots of siblings with little to go round. Beyond the plot, Moran’s uses the same language and style that makes all of her work honest and funny with a good dose of sentiment about struggle of trying to fit in with all the societal messages that women are bombarded with.
For Johanna, her adolescent adventures over two years read like a horny Adrian Mole as they move from nightly trysts with a deodorant top (masturbation is the lifeblood of all of Moran’s work) to a failed threesome with a posh boy from the magazine. Along with the all sex, Johanna is also working out her place in the world by trying out different opinions, looks and drinking habits to the bemusement of her colleagues. Dolly’s hasty lies about a fictional sexual history, music tastes and education are an endearing mash of over-confidence and blind fear that perfectly captures teenage hood. Ditching school at 15 is a swift decision (Moran herself was home-schooled) that makes the focus on her home-life and identity all the more pressing without the trappings of her own peers. Johanna certainly seems joyously far too much for any classroom to contain.
Johanna’s exasperated brother, her wannabe rockstar Dad and a Pete Doherty-esque singer are all warm supporting characters and mouthpieces for Moran’s thoughts on post-Thatcher Britain. As a teenage girl writing about music all day does entail, the soundtrack of My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and Pixies does wrap the timeless woes of adolescence with a nostalgic kick of guitar bands.
Much like How to be Woman, Moran blends her own life with pointed messages that she’s certainly not afraid to make clear in her writing. Along with the feminist approach that resists any narrative that relies on male assistance or permission for Johanna’s shenanigans, Moran slams the mortuary-coldness of cynicism and the ease of critics to conform to the opinions of their peers with little remorse:
It is a million times easier to be cynical and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish…
Moran reads like a Bridget Jones’ Diary being trampled on with Doc Martens and the cackle of a chain-smoking barmaid: no Colin Firth or stupid diets required. Despite going over the same ground, How to Build a Girl is a strong, feisty novel that has more wisdom and strength than ten Katniss Everdeens.