How to Build a Girl By Caitlin Moran (Ebury Press)
In 2011 Caitlin Moran wrote a book that she described in publishing terms as “an open goal”. No, not a treatise on sport – although given the wealth of topics Moran regularly opines on it wouldn’t have been a surprise. In How to Be a Woman, Moran – a former TV host and currently a columnist with The Sunday Times – blended biography and feminism and lassoed a dedidcated audience of women, uniting them in air-punching against the patriarchy. It was brash, funny and credited with introducing a swathe of younger women to feminism. It also happened to sell a lot of copies, but was far from academic: this was not Julia Kristeva or Kate Millett, but a punk rock philosophy of bodily autonomy and combating sexism. The euphoria that greeted the book, soured a little as Moran’s detractors became vocal about the non-intersectional nature of her views (in fairness, it was a memoir, and not one that claimed to speak for every woman’s lived experience). Moran comes from a large Wolverhampton family, with little money and was home-schooled. She was overweight, anxious and longed to be a writer.
In How to Build a Girl, we meet Johanna Morrigan, a teenage girl whose fictional life so closely mirrors Moran’s own experience that it’s difficult to separate the two. Johanna is burdened with multiple teenage anxieties (weight issues, desperation to lose her virginity) while gorging on TV, books and writing terrible poetry. Her unemployed but able father once aspired to be a musician, but is now a drinker who oversees the children’s cultural education. In a moment of rueful over-sharing she tells a neighbour the family rely on benefits and realises this reveal may jeopardise their precarious financial situation. When not hovering daily by the letterbox to intercept any dole threat notices, Johanna lurks in bed, using her deodorant bottle as a sex toy. Amid all the blunt-as-hell bildungsroman, Moran traces a hilarious, embarrassment-heavy image of adolescence. Johanna reinvents and “collages” herself as Dolly Wilde, pinning pictures of heroes – Orwell, Liz Taylor, Rik Mayall as Lord Flashheart in Blackadder – on her wall like an incident room detective. When Dolly/Johanna heads for London and immerses herself in partying, music and journalism, the reader must remind themselves this book has an ‘author’s note’ disclaiming the overlap in Moran’s real and Johanna’s fictional lives.
The main problem here is voice. If you’ve read anything Moran has previously written, from How To Be A Woman or her vibrant, wisecracking journalism, it’s hard to find Dolly/Johanna as more distinct. Here is a character that feels less like a novelistic creation, and more like Moran’s mouthpiece and fictional doppelganger. When Dolly is dispatched to an interview in Dublin, she transports a pint of Guinness back to England for her Irish father – a true story Moran regularly tells at her live shows and readings. Many moments mirror Moran’s own life and it’s this lack of separation between fact and fiction that makes the book less convincing as a novel.
That’s not to say it doesn’t zing with humour. The barrage of one-liners is constant, and what Moran does brilliantly is capture the complexities and contradictions of teenage life, from sex and shyness to gender and pop culture. “Record shops are not for womenfolk… they are the young, music-loving person’s equivalent of the gentleman’s smoking room”. Johanna’s story pivots from cultural reconnaissance – John Peel, The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien – to personal exploration. These streams often cross, just as they do in her beloved Ghostbusters: she attempts to learn S&M by watching Madonna’s Justify my Love video: this is Adrian Mole with a better soundtrack and more onanism.
There is a dearth of contemporary novels about being young and working class and this book’s examination of class and poverty is unsentimental. Sex and class are inextricably political: when Johanna begins a relationship with a “posh” man, he repeatedly calls her “filthy” and she overhears herself referred to as his “bit of rough”. Johanna starts the book as a girl who wants to be saved but slowly realises that she can save herself. There is no doubting that Moran can write, but the subject matter feels like overly familiar, well-trodden ground. It’s difficult not to conjure up Germaine – the teenage protagonist from Moran’s debut TV series Raised by Wolves – when reading Johanna’s life, or to hear Moran herself (all of Chapter 24 could have come verbatim from How to Be a Woman). Despite this, it’s hard not to fall for its teen anti-heroine, the aspirant, pun-slinging Johanna. How to Build a Girl is a hugely entertaining rebel yell – and you’ll never think of a Blue Peter snake-handler in the same way after reading it.
This review was originally published in The Irish Times on Saturday, August 20th, 2011.