This is not my first encounter with Caitlin Moran because I’m already a bit of a fan. Raised by Wolves (written by Moran for Channel 4) was one of those TV programs that I couldn’t help but love because it is reminiscent of families I knew growing up, and of my own family, friends and just about everyone I knew before I went to university. Sure it’s a bit of a piss-take, but it captures the rough as muck, angry crust that makes the pride of Black Country people. And let’s face it, if we aren’t taking the piss out of you and cracking vulgar jokes while drinking your beer and eating your crisps – we probably don’t like you.
Moran is a familiar voice. She is a working-class girl who has triumphed in journalism and her authenticity comes through in How to Build a Girl.
This isn’t a perfect novel however, this isn’t a sleek novel with a thin layer of polish on the mahogany. This novel is a bit like a pub table. It has hundreds of ancient layers of varnish that are pockmarked with lighter scorches, it wobbles a little, and the corners are bashed to all hell, but it works.
“So far, the only plan I’ve come up with is writing. I can write, because writing – unlike choreography, architecture or conquering kingdoms – is a thing you can do when you’re lonely and poor, and have no infrastructure, i.e.: a ballet troupe, or some cannons. Poor people can write. It’s one of the few things poverty, and a lack of connections, cannot stop you doing.” p. 31
How to Build a Girl is the story of well-read Joanna Morrigan, a 14 year old girl living in 90s Wolverhampton who is trying to reinvent herself. She refers to this reinvention as killing herself, a sort of suicide of the old to allow the new to take over and conquer. This is a twist on a coming of age story with a lot of vulgarity, humour, and of course – writing.
Joanna first takes to trying to write a novel, and when she realises this is a non-starter, she enters a poem into a competition. On winning the competition she is invited to be interviewed on national television and this strange, unpopular, overweight teenager does something terrible, an impression of Scooby Doo, which subsequently means she can never show her face in public again.
From this point Joanna decides to turn her hand to music journalism, takes up a new name, Dolly Wilde, and becomes a sort of goth. For a while this doesn’t help her other quest which is to become not a not-kissed, virgin until then she finds some success in her new career, leaves school, and begins mixing with a crowd of cynics from work.
There are a lot of balls flying around in this novel from this point. Johanna’s escapades into sex are focused on pleasing her male partners and not actually in finding pleasure for herself. Johanna realises that class is a significant part of her life when she realises she is her not-quite-boyfriend’s ‘little bit of rough’. This leads to her shouting at him, demanding that actually he is actually ‘her little bit of posh’ (I’ve been there). There is the love interest, the eccentric John Kite, the alcoholic, chain-smoker who is far too eloquent. And of course Johanna learns that being a cynic rather than a fan in her work earns her a more work, but also how poison cynicism can be.
“Cynicism is, ultimately, fear. Cynicism makes contact with your skin, and a thick black carapace begins to grow – like insect armour. This armour will protect your heart, from disappointment – but it leaves you almost unable to work. You cannot dance, in this armour. Cynicism keeps you pinned to the spot, in the same posture, forever.” – p. 262
Johanna is an interesting character as development goes, there is all the enthusiasm and excitement and desperation associated with 14 year old girls and navigating teenage years. But it is satisfying as she comes to conclusions in sometimes absurd ways. I quite like Johanna, but partly that is because she reminds me of girls I grew up with, and partly she reminds me of myself.
Her family are the honest to goodness, struggling to survive unit, on benefits, five kids, Mum struggling with postnatal depression, and Dad who hurt himself quite badly once, but still dreams of becoming a rockstar. There is something very ordinary about all of them, her parents love and support their daughter, Johanna herself wants to be daring and do something different from the rest of her family. And fundamentally I think she really wants to carve out her own identity.
This is a very relatable book, it’s funny, blunt and vulgar, it’s easy to read but it is raw and has spontaneity. This novel has certainly intrigued me about more of Moran’s work, but I am not certain I would read it again but I will certainly bestow How to Build a Girl’s virtues on anyone who asks (or doesn’t).
This is not a novel for a faint heart or the easily offended or for anyone who believes women do not masturbate. This novel has it’s balls out and firmly pressed to the shop window and is glorious in it’s blunt honesty.