Staff review by Chris Saliba
Caitlin Moran has written a wild, smart, energetic coming of age story.
Caitlin Moran began her writing career at sixteen, publishing her first novel The Chronicles of Narmo. At seventeen she was working as a music journalist. Since then she’s carved out a career as a columnist and author, living by her pen. This is all the more extraordinary as Moran left school at eleven.
How to Build a Girl, Moran’s second novel, is straight autobiographical fiction. The year is 1990. Fourteen-year- old Johanna Morrigan lives with her large family in a cramped Wolverhampton council house. The family is poor, living on welfare. Johanna decides to try her hand at writing. Suddenly the story jumps two years and Johanna is seventeen. It’s 1992. She’s working for the music paper DM&E, reviewing albums and concerts.
As part of her new career, Johanna decides she needs to create a new persona to help propel her forward. It’s all a part of her fake-it-till-you-make-it ethos. She calls herself Dolly Wilde (after the real life lesbian and hell raiser niece of Oscar Wilde), takes to using lashings of black eyeliner and wears a flamboyant top hat. At times it’s a struggle to imprint the brash Dolly Wilde over the still timid and uncertain Johanna Morrigan, but Johanna presses on nonetheless.
It’s always been Johanna’s urgent goal in life to lose her virginity. When she finally does so, she determines she wants to live as the boys do and starts a career as a sexual adventurer. She has all sorts of experiences, the sex basically being somewhere between good and okay. These encounters are described in lurid detail. When emotional complications arise, it causes Johanna / Dolly to rethink. She decides it’s time to tear Dolly down and build up a new girl, to reinvent, because that’s all life is really, a series of reinventions of the self.
Caitlin Moran brings much of her trademark humour to this rollicking, non-stop girl’s own adventure. There’s no plot to speak of, rather the story runs like a river of life. Stuff just keeps happening. Moran stays within the years 1990 and 1992, giving herself the job of describing all she could remember. About a third to a half of the novel concentrates on Johanna / Dolly’s sexual conquests. These parts are not for the faint-hearted, as nothing is left out.
In the end How to Build a Girl is a wild mix of coming-of-age story, rant against the class system and liberated guide book for the young. Funny, moving, even inspiring, How to Build a Girl perfectly captures those awkward, uncertain teenage years.
How to Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran. Published by Ebury Press. ISBN: 9780091949013 RRP: $22.99
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