Publisher: Ebury Press.
Paperback, 352 pages.
Release date: July 3rd 2014.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
What do you do in your teenage years when you realise what your parents taught you wasn’t enough? You must go out and find books and poetry and pop songs and bad heroes - and build yourself.
It’s 1990. Johanna Morrigan, 14, has shamed herself so badly on local TV that she decides that there’s no point in being Johanna anymore and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde – fast-talking, hard-drinking Gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer! She will save her poverty stricken Bohemian family by becoming a writer – like Jo in Little Women, or the Brontes - but without the dying young bit.
By 16, she’s smoking cigarettes, getting drunk and working for a music paper. She’s writing pornographic letters to rock-stars, having all the kinds of sex with all the kinds of men, and eviscerating bands in reviews of 600 words or less.
But what happens when Johanna realises she’s built Dolly with a fatal flaw? Is a box full of records, a wall full of posters and a head full of paperbacks, enough to build a girl after all?
Imagine The Bell Jar written by Rizzo from Grease, with a soundtrack by My Bloody Valentine and Happy Mondays. As beautiful as it is funny, How To Build a Girl is a brilliant coming-of-age novel in DMs and ripped tights, that captures perfectly the terror and joy of trying to discover exactly who it is you are going to be.
Fabulous, frank and always funny, with a pitch-perfect voice and wicked turns-of-phrase, Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl is a coming-of-age tale that tells is like it is. Be warned, though, right from the very first page, this is no-holds-barred kinda stuff. If you like your humour rude and risqué, then, certainly, this book is for you. If on the other hand, your favourite narrators are shy, unassuming, Mary-Sue’s, then I’m not quite sure how well you’ll get along with the heroine of this piece. Me, I’m pretty much a fan!
Meet Johanna Morrigan. Johanna is brash, she’s loud, and she’s very, very, funny – a bit like this book, really! It’s the late-eighties and Johanna, in her early teens, lives on a Wolverhampton council estate with the rest of her rather-large and ever-expanding family. Johanna’s dad, a wannabe musician is on unemployment benefits, and the family live their lives in fear of being ‘found out’ and ‘cut off’ for what would they do then, but starve? Johanna sees how her parents live; her dad’s broken dreams, her mum’s struggle with the daily depression that comes with having not-very-much-to live for, and she reckons there has to be more to life for her. And there is. Because Johanna has a weapon, a very powerful weapon. Johanna has words. Words are her weapon. Words are her world; her escape to another world. This, Johanna thinks, is how she’ll build a life for herself, and how she’ll help her family out too. But first, she has to reinvent herself. First, she has to build a girl.
Enter Dolly Wilde, Johanna’s alter-ego, so named after Oscar Wilde’s niece, who was “this amazing alcoholic lesbian who was dead scandalous and died really young.” If Johanna was a happy handful, then as Dolly, she is fully out of control; Dolly drinks, she smokes –“Silk Cuts –the cigarettes of the working class woman”, she goes out every night and she is determined to be as promiscuous as she likes. First, though, she has to get laid: getting laid is what Johanna wants most in life. As Dolly, she gets laid a lot. She also scores a pretty cool job as a critic at a music weekly: D&ME where she gets to hang out in London and go to parties where she drinks too much and sleeps around. Johanna and her dad also have a laugh-out-loud if cringe worthy backstage meeting with The Smashing Pumpkins. I die! It’s all pretty good fun, and on the way she meets the singer and “legendary Welsh piss-head” John Kite with whom she has an instant, undeniable and possibly life-long connection in a Victoria Mary Clarke, Shane McGowan kinda way. Soon, Dolly wants more; she wants more than parties every night and casual sex and all the mean and nasty reviews she’s been writing so much so that practically every band in the country (and beyond!) hates her. Johanna wants something real. Dolly may have taken Johanna places she thought she’d never see, but Dolly’s not perfect, far from it. Maybe, Dolly’s not what she needs after all – maybe it is high time Johanna started living for real.
For anyone who grew up in the late-eighties and early-nineties, who listened to My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive (first time round!), who witnessed the birth of Grunge and to whom John Peel and the music weeklies were gods, this book is for you. I initially picked up How to Build a Girl because I believed it was a YA coming-of-age story, and while this is a coming-of-age tale, it’s definitely one written with adults in mind. I believe it’s being sold as an adult book too, so I guess the only confusion there was on my part. I loved reading all about Johanna’s adventures, and Caitlin Moran is certainly a gifted writer; she has a wonderful way with words and a wicked wit that made this a laugh-a-minute book for me. How to Build a Girl is brilliantly observed, and it reads so, so, so, true. I enjoyed every minute of it!
This book reads as a standalone (and that’s what I believed it to be) but Moran has mentioned that if How to Build a Girl sells well (and, I believe it is selling very well!), then she has plans for two more in this series (How to be Famous and How to Change the World). I, for one, would love to read the further adventures of Johanna Morrigan a.k.a. Dolly Wilde.