Published by Harper
Publication date: September 23rd 2014
Genres: Coming-of-age, Debut, Fiction
I want to be a self-made woman. I want to conjure myself out of every sparkling, fast-moving thing I can see. I want to be the creator of me. I’m gonna begat myself.
Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl is the hell-bent lovechild of Angela’s Ashes and Almost Famous—overlarge, impoverished family with a drunken non-working father and a teen daughter with a love of music and writing, desperate to grow up and get away. Johanna Morrigan is fourteen and who she is is so horribly not who she wants to be that she creates a new persona for herself named Dolly Wilde, who sends unsolicited music reviews to a London music publication. When, after two years, Johanna gets an interview with them she takes her Goth-meets-Willy-Wonka, heavily made-up, top hat wearing self to London and Dolly is officially launched as a music critic. Now, she can be who she wants to be- the kind of gal who is up for any adventure especially of the drinking and having sex kind. For her, both are the ultimate entrée into a world that has eluded her. Unlike, the overweight, goofy Johanna who likes musicals, Dolly parties every night, smokes, drinks, and sleeps with anyone who asks her. She is a sexual adventuress, earning money to keep her family afloat, and in charge of her own destiny. Until she is not.
Even if How to Build a Girl is based on Moran’s own life, she writes fiction that explodes. It also pierces and shocks but at the same time fills the reader with sympathy and recognition. You don’t have to have been an overweight girl with too many siblings, a drunk father and no money to remember the onslaught of feelings that came with the teenage years. Johanna yearns to be everything she is not and for many women there is much to recognize in those feelings. The difference is she acts on it, deciding to remake herself as she thinks she wants to be. And so, Dolly Wilde is born, the snarky, hard-partying, sex toy. At the same time, she is intelligent, endearing, and starved for life and experience.
Because what you are, as a teenager, is a small, silver, empty rocket. And you use loud music as fuel, and then the information in books as maps and coordinates, to tell you where you’re going.
How to Build a Girl is not for everyone. Moran uses profanity in place of carbon dioxide—spewing it with every exhale. This is especially true of the ‘c’ word which I cannot accept as part of the feminist paradigm (own it and it can’t hurt you). It is simply a horribly derogatory word to me and I don’t like seeing it, BUT Moran so thoroughly inhabits Johanna’s world that it is necessary not gratuitous. Still, this is a novel about a 16-year-old girl who embarks on a journey of indiscriminate sex and drugs to discover who she wants to be. It hurts, it’s made up of awful mistakes, but there is a core there that glows with the positive energy of self. If I were the mother of a teenage girl I would be terrified by Johanna’s recklessness in pursuing her selfhood but as a mature woman, while her choices are still concerning they are offset by the nuclear brightness of this young girl’s mind.
Moran writes this character so inimitably herself- though she tries to be someone else- that Johanna’s words resonate, even in the mind of middle-aged readers. She burns hot and fast until she learns that this façade is not one built to last and that it’s based on a foundation of cynicism that is not really her.
For when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas. Cynicism means your automatic answer becomes “No.” Cynicism means you presume everything will end in disappointment. And this is, ultimately, why anyone becomes cynical.
There is much in How to Build a Girl that will offend and put off, but the real message of the book, underneath the noise and squalor, is one of hope and the kind of inner self-sufficiency every girl should have. Johanna puts herself in harm’s way to learn, but as a girl with no support system she has to get there on her own. The fact that she does so, is nothing short of a miracle and a testament to her brilliant, troubled, foolish, incandescent self.
There is no academy where you can learn to be yourself; there is no line manager slowly urging you toward the correct answer. You are midwife to yourself, and will give birth to yourself, over and over, in dark rooms, alone.
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