How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
I’ll start up front by saying that this book is one of the sweariest, wankiest, shaggiest stories I’ve ever read, and it’s narrated by a teenager who is just fourteen at its outset. The first lines set the tone…
I am lying in bed, next to my brother, Lupin.
He is six years old. He is asleep.
I am fourteen. I am not asleep. I am masturbating.
To be fair, it’s a biggish bed, and she does put a ‘little, friendly Berlin Wall’ of a pillow between them – but still! So, if you can’t bear swearing, wanking and shagging in a novel, this might not be the book for you.
… But you would miss the point, for underneath all its bravado is a story about a girl’s coming of age. A teenager in a large working-class family that lives on benefits in a part of the world where most people are in the same boat, told in Moran’s typical earthy style.
… However, although Moran insists that her heroine is not her, despite coming from a similar background, if you’ve read her part rant, part memoir How to be a Woman, you’ll be familiar with her own lifestory and you will find this novel repetitive. Luckily, although I love her journalism, I’m one of the few who hasn’t read that book, so this novel was sort of new for me.
It’s 1990, and Johanna Morrigan (Johanna with an ‘h’ as in Dylan’s song – never acknowledged, but surely chosen specifically), wants to escape the poverty she’s stuck in, she wants to be someone – in London not Wolverhampton. Her ageing hippy dad wants to be famous too, he’s never let his vision of being a rock star vanish – he’ll force his audition tape onto anyone, but no-one listens. Her older brother Krissi is at that shutting himself away stage of adolescence, her mum is worn out with looking after the twins and is clearly suffering from post-natal depression. They live on the breadline, buoyed by her dad’s disability benefit. Johanna dreams of a future…
… I don’t want to be noble and committed like most women in history were – which invariably seems to involve being burned at the stake, dying of sadness or being bricked up in a tower by an earl. I don’t want to sacrifice myself for something. I don’t want to die for something I don’t even want to walk in the rain up a hill in a skirt that’s sticking to my thighs for something. I want to live for something, instead – as men do. I want to have fun. The most fun ever. I want to start parting like it’s 1999 – nine years early. I want a rapturous quest. I want to sacrifice myself to glee. I want to make the world better, in some way.
To cut a long story short, she reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, a Goth-inspired ‘lady sex-adventurer’. As soon as she can, she leaves school, starts writing record reviews for a London rock newspaper and sets out to conquer the world through the media of sex & drugs & rock’n’roll. She undoubtedly has a good time – but does she like what she’s become?
You do want to like Johanna, however precocious she is. You may be a little envious of some of the things she gets up to as a teenager – just some! (Getting on the guest list as an 18 yr-old at the Marquee Club when my boyfriend agreed to do a roadie stint for a (Christian) prog-rock band back in 1978 is my claim to fame in the rock’n’roll department only – none of the other!).
The book, although a bit meandering, was easy to read but very rude of course. I particularly enjoyed the parts featuring Johanna and Welsh rocker and pissante John Kite, with whom she strikes up a true friendship. The problem is that Moran’s own story is always in the back of your mind, and I think I’d have preferred to read that. They say write about what you know, but we already know that in Moran’s case, so let’s hope her next fictional outing is less transparent – I’ll happily read it. (6.5/10)
P.S. Lyric quote from ‘We gotta get out of this place’ by Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, performed by The Animals in 1965.