Build­ing a girl rev­els in the fa­mil­iar

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Jen Zoratti

THE year is 1990 and 14-year-old Jo­hanna Mor­ri­gan, inside-out with em­bar­rass­ment after a dis­as­trous lo­cal tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ance, has de­cided that she must, in so many words, rip it up and start again — and build the girl she wants to be. She plas­ters the walls of her coun­cil house in Wolver­hamp­ton, Eng­land with cues: pho­tos of riot gr­rrls and El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor; the lyrics from Bowie’s Rebel Rebel and Queen Bitch; the burn­ing Ro­man can­dle pas­sage from On The Road; maps of London. This col­lage serves as the blue­print for her rein­ven­tion as Dolly Wilde — a brash ’n’ brassy self-styled mu­sic writer/Lady Sex Ad­ven­turer who fast-talks like a ’40s news­pa­per­woman and is de­ter­mined to save her poverty-stricken fam­ily by writ­ing way-harsh reviews of lo­cal bands in a mid-level mu­sic pa­per. But Jo­hanna starts to dis­like the girl she’s be­come — the girl she’s built — and that’s when the real self-dis­cov­ery be­gins. How to Build a Girl is the fic­tion de­but from Caitlin Mo­ran, a Times of London colum­nist whose 2011 non-fic­tion mem­oir/up­roar­i­ous fem­i­nist in­struc­tion man­ual, How To Be A Woman, was a New York Times best­seller thanks to its con­ver­sa­tional, re­lat­able tone. The par­al­lels in th­ese works’ ti­tles are in­ten­tional; after all, Jo­hanna Mor­ri­gan is, for the most part, a fic­tion­al­ized Caitlin Mo­ran. Mo­ran also came of age in the ’90s in a Wolver­hamp­tion coun­cil house circa 1990. Caitlin, too, built her­self from pa­per­backs and records and hero­ines in the form of Kate Bush and Dorothy Parker. She, too, made col­lages on her walls, be­came a mu­sic writer at a young age, and de­vel­opedd a long and last­ing love af­fair withw black eye­liner. She, too, is hi­lar­i­ous. The picky de­tails are dif­fer­ent, but for theth most part, this reads like another dishyd mem­oir in the form of the novel. The tone of this book, too, strad­dles theth gen­res; though writ­ten in an ac­tive voice in the first per­son, it of­ten seems as though Jo­hanna is re­count­ing her teenage­hoodte from the self-aware van­tageta point of an adult. We never re­ally feelf like we’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing Jo­hanna’s mor­ti­fi­ca­tions, tri­umphs and first sex­ual fum­blings in real time; How To Build A Girl is more like stum­bling upon an im­prob­a­bly well-writ­ten, hy­per-re­flec­tive di­ary. For a novel about a girl build­ing her­self (whose ex­ploits seem a lit­tle fa­mil­iar), Jo­hanna some­times sounds too much like a chatty, self-as­sured, 30-some­thing colum­nist with an al­ready-es­tab­lished voice — Mo­ran’s voice. That’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing, be­cause Mo­ran’s got a great voice. She’s re­lat­able, she’s funny but, most im­por­tantly, she’s sin­cere. In many ways, How To Build A Girl is a com­ing-of-age tale that she’s uniquely qual­i­fied to write — this is a story about a girl who is her own ar­chi­tect. Jo­hanna’s life isn’t easy. She can­didly speaks about be­ing poor, fe­male and fat, and her strug­gles with clas­sism, sex­ism and body im­age. She deals with near-crip­pling anx­i­ety, which is com­pounded by her whim­si­cal (and un­pre­dictable) al­co­holic failed-mu­si­cian fa­ther. But she doesn’t al­low a world hell-bent on hold­ing her back win. She fights back — her pen is her sword, her words barbed. She’s armed with a sense of hu­mour and an in­sa­tiable thirst for soaking up as many ex­pe­ri­ences as life has to of­fer, like any good artist. And we root for her. How To Build A Girl will def­i­nitely make you laugh — her Lady Sex Ad­ven­turer tales are down­right vulgar in the best pos­si­ble way — but it’s an af­fect­ing read, es­pe­cially if you’ve ever been a 14-year-old girl. The sen­ti­ment of the book, re­gard­less of its ex­e­cu­tion, is lovely. It’s a re­minder that we get to de­cide who we want to be — and that rein­ven­tion is al­ways pos­si­ble. Girls, like Rome, are not built in a day. Some­times they need to be ren­o­vated. And some­times they need to be re­built en­tirely. Jen Zoratti is a Free Press re­porter and founder of the blog SCREAM­ING IN ALL CAPS: another fem­i­nist

re­sponse to cul­ture.

How To Build a Girl

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