Building a girl revels in the familiar
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