Review: How to Build a Girl

I’ve always enjoyed Caitlin Moran’s columns in the Sunday Times Magazine. Her writing feels unstudied, off-the-cuff, casual, in a way that’s both very rare and very hard to achieve, the smattering of ALL CAPS SENTENCES, slang and brand names belying compelling rhetorical structures and serious political (often feminist) points.

How to Build a Girl is her first novel: a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a young woman called Johanna Morrigan living in 90s Wolverhampton and dreaming of being – someone else. Almost anyone else, really. So, she invents Dolly Wilde, a gothpunk Manic Pixie Dream Girl Lady Sex Adventurer alter ego in a top hat, gets a job as a music critic and embarks on a life of drink, drugs and moderate, grungy showbiz. So far, so standard a teenage rebellion; what makes How to Build a Girl notable is its commentary on the poverty created by the closing of traditional industries under Margaret Thatcher; the Morrigans’ ever-present fear of having their benefits cut; and the objectification of female bodies. It is altogether a more…cerebral novel than its subject matter and origin might suggest.

The conversational nature of Moran’s non-fiction writing has been dialled back here: gone is the brand-name specificity, the knowing-wink directness. In long form, and without these embellishments, the relative simplicity of her sentence and narrative structures become apparent: I don’t think I’d ever categorise How to Build a Girl as literary fiction, it is too artless for that. But, just occasionally and at its best, Moran’s prose is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente’s in its very artlessness, its tumble of teenage emotion:

…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.

One consequence of this artlessness is that the novel is, let’s say, quite tell-y not show-y. Which is to say, instead of allowing its readers to come to conclusions based on narrative and character, it spells out what you should take from it: see the above statement on cynicism, or this, from John Kite, a singer and Johanna’s crush:

When the middle classes get passionate about politics, they’re arguing about their treats—their tax breaks and their investments. When the poor get passionate about politics, they’re fighting for their lives.

Despite the fact that How to Build a Girl is ostensibly written from Johanna’s point of view, these passages feel like statements from an insecure author who wants to make very sure we Get The Point.

Which we do. And we agree with you. Don’t worry, Caitlin. It’s all good.

And yet. This is still, I think, an important book. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is how very many sex and masturbation scenes there are in this novel. Johanna/Dolly is, after all, a teenage girl discovering all the mysteries and pleasures of incipient adulthood, all at once, with multiple partners, or no-one at all if necessary. In one memorable scene, she gets cystitis from someone with a very large penis. This is important because, as Johanna herself says, “There is very little female narrative of what it’s like to fuck, and be fucked.” There are not many stories in which women are allowed to be like this without being seen as a kind of fascinating lusus naturae. There are not many cultural narratives as honest about the female sexual experience.

I don’t know that How to Build a Girl is going to stand as a classic through the ages, or anything like that. It is not a novel that can sustain much critical scrutiny or discussion – it wears its messages too obviously on its sleeve for that; we are never in much doubt as to Moran’s politics or Johanna’s opinions or motivations. As a “lighter” read, though, a chick-lit-style novel that doesn’t make you feel like you do when you’ve binged on Dairy Milk (unsatisfied and slightly nauseated) – well, it’s much better than Shopaholic, let’s put it that way.

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