Thursday, 17 July 2014

Shelf Esteem: How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran

How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran
Shelf Worth: 4/5

I came at this, Caitlin Moran's first novel written as an adult, juddering all over the place with contradictory preconceptions. The title riffs off her bestselling non-fiction book! Would it just be a thinly-veiled book about a proto-Caitlin? But then her more focused, serious columns are shiningly good. Maybe there would be more of that? It was enough to make me WRITE ALL IN CAPS.

At the end of this book, I wanted to run out of my flat, find and hug teenage girls - inappropriate at any time, let alone in Camberwell at half eleven at night. Johanna Morrigan is a teenager who wants to be something. Or someone, she hasn't figured out who, but she knows it will involve writing, the one activity other than gloriously masturbating at any opportunity that she, as a properly poor girl, can do.

After assiduously listening to every music tape in her local library, she creates a new identity for herself as the elaborately eyelinered and mean Dolly Wilde, sends in sample reviews to the music magazine D&ME, and ends up as a completely naive stringer, filing reviews and, as she thinks it, supporting her family with work. But as Dolly's mean streak takes over, Johanna finds that her new persona might not be her ideal after all.

There is a no-nonsense disclaimer at the start that while Johanna Morrigan and Caitlin Moran share biographical details in common - Wolverhampton, large family on benefits, disabled father, precocious music journalism career, fatness, fondness for hats and having a lovely time wanking and shagging around - this is total fiction. That in itself feels like a whopper: I've read a number of interviews since in which Moran reveals great chunks of her own life that additionally match with Johanna's (the wearing of top hats, merrily declaring herself to be a "swashfuckler", giant, implausible penises), and while it would be amazing to have more Johanna and less Moran, there is still plenty to make it a hugely entertaining novel rather than a roman à fucklef.

Not least is the fact that Moran is just such a bloody good writer. As someone said recently, she's more than put in her 10,000 hours, and as a result some of the descriptions and lines are so beautiful you could sigh. And when she gets properly lost in her characters and forgets to Moranify them, it's a fantastic book, filled with humour, pathos and delightful characters - her family are wonderfully written, with a running gag that Johanna continually fails to identify her clearly gay brother's sexuality.

This feels like a bridging work between How To Be A Woman, her TV show Raised By Wolves and another, future novel that doesn't have Moran popping up behind the narrator to ask "How am I doing? Are you having fun?" In writing this, I hope she has found the confidence to go further, and leave what have become to feel like her security blankets behind. In the meantime, this book is a rare one that celebrates female coming of age without having sex as the demon in the corner.


  1. I've been curious about this. To be honest I was a bit put off after Moran's 'no one writes YA for young women' comment. The resulting haghtag on Twitter did at least give me a huge summer reading list.

    1. My reading has massively tipped towards YA over the last couple of years, primarily because things like Twitter made me aware of good examples. See also: you recommending me We Were Liars! I'm reading Rainbow "best name ever" Rowell's latest adult book next, I really enjoyed Eleanor & Park so keen to see what she's like writing for an older audience (NB not "adult" adult).

    2. So excited about Rainbow Rowell. SUCH A GOOD NAME. I tend to read it when I've been reading something huge and I want to whizz through a book – a two-three hour train journey is perfectly YA timed.

  2. I read 'How to be a Woman' and the writing is great and funny but I remain unconvinced, something about it just feels off. So glad I didn't see the comment about YA but I want to see that summer reading list though!

    1. Ask Sian very, very nicely (or I will!)

    2. The hashtag was #caitlinmoranshouldread but it was a couple of months ago - do an advanced search for May and they all come up! Shame no one Storified it.


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