1990 – Wolverhampton. Johanna Morrigan is 14, intelligent, funny and from a loving family. Unfortunately, said family consists of a depressed mother, a mostly drunk father, an older brother with issues of his own, and three younger brothers to worry about. Well read, witty and hugely intelligent, Johanna longs for escape, building a new version of herself at age 16 and gaining employment as a writer, frequently travelling to the drink, sex and drug filled bars and bedsits of London.
But as problems mount up for her family back in Wolverhampton, Johanna struggles to find a compromise between the life she has lived and the new life she has made for herself – will she choose to be helpful, intelligent but awkward Johanna Morrigan, or fun, sexy troublemaker Dolly Wilde?
Caitlin Moran is really riding on a wave of success at the moment – How to be a Woman was a stonking success back in 2011, and rightly so – a refreshing look at feminism that was enlightening, hilarious and inspiring – and accessible enough that I could read and enjoy it without feeling horribly out of place. Adding to that, a tv series roughly based on her early life – Raised by Wolves started airing in March 2015.
How to Build a Girl is in a similar vein to the previous two projects – a semi autobiographical novel that explores, develops and fictionalises Moran’s teenage years, and provides a close and almost painful look at being a teenager – you may never have become a music writer, hosted a party from a bathtub or frequently nicked ashtrays from hotels, but I can’t imagine anyone who won’t be reminded of their awkward adolescent years when reading this.
I should point out that this book is pretty explicit – but it’s not gratuitous, the sex scenes here serving well as both a good portrayal of a teens sexual awakening, and also for moments of hysterical, awkward comedy. As such I reckon this book would be a good read for anyone sixteen and up, provided you don’t read in a public place – I was reading this in a waiting room on the platform of the London City Airport DLR (glamorous, I know), and think I may have genuinely worried the other inhabitants by giggling and blushing like a small schoolgirl for a good twenty minutes.
Despite never having been a teenage girl (to the best of my knowledge anyway…), Johanna Morrigan is a hugely relatable character – awkward, worried about her looks, prone to bursting out exactly the wrong thing when nervous, and forever thwarted in her attempts to look cool (one incident when Johanna takes up smoking, but is informed some time later that she has been smoking the cigarette from the wrong end, genuinely happened to me…). I don’t think there is any way one could read this and not root for Johanna to succeed.
The characters around Johanna are also well drawn – a mother struggling with children, bills, an unreliable husband and postnatal depression and a father – an injured wannabe musician whose love for drink sometimes interferes with his role as a parent. Krissi, Johanna’s older brother is caustic, with a biting wit and an ability to easily silence the younger sister who adores him. Thankfully though, they are all very three dimensional – they all may make bad decisions, but there is any doubt that the children are well loved and cared for, no matter how eccentric and cash starved the upbringing.
How does this link into Moran’s new role as Queen of Twitter and leading Feminist, you may wonder? This book is a marvel, in that whilst you are busy laughing and empathising with Johanna and her various problems, major issues such as gender inequality, the pressures put on young girls to look a certain way, social inequalities and assumptions about class, are all explored and eloquently spoken about. In addition, topics often considered taboo – periods, masturbation, women owning and enjoying sex, and even things like cystitis, are openly discussed. You may cringe – I certainly did. But I laughed, related and hugely enjoyed the bluntness. This is being a teenager, the gawky awkwardness of findings one’s self described perfectly.
A fantastic read, How to Build a Girl ends on an uplifting but openeded note – and I sincerely hope I’ll be able to read more about the adventures of Johanna Morrigan/Dolly Wilde.
Huge thanks to the publishers for the copy.