Why reading and writing is the road to happiness...

This blog started years ago as a place to muse on the life projects keeping me entertained. It is no surprise then that it has morphed into a blog about my reading as that has been my lifelong project. Here I review lots of different types of books, with an added focus on Australian women writers. Hope you enjoy - feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Book Review: 'How To Build A Girl' by Caitlin Moran (No 17: Fiction)

How to Build a Girl, Caitlin MoranI am a big fan of Caitlin Moran and her writing. Her first piece of non fiction 'How To Be A Woman' was a fantastically humorous, thought provoking contemplation on contemporary feminism. I highly recommend reading that text, and also her second piece 'Moranthology' which was a collection of her editorial  and long form articles for British newspapers - not quite as enjoyable as 'How To Be A Woman' but her account of Kate and William's wedding is worth the price of the book alone.
Moran started her career as a music journalist: she was a ballsy teenager who talked her way into writing for a well known publication Melody Maker, which brought her notoriety for slamming indie bands with ebulliently sarcastic reviews. Once you read a few of Moran's books you'll be aware of her poor upbringing, her family situation relying on a pension, her wonderfully droll parents and siblings, and her frank attitude towards sex. So it is interesting to see her now foray into fictional writing as she begins what is touted as a series of books, starting with 'How To Build A Girl'.
This novel is apparently 'loosely' based on Moran's adolescence, although I would say it reads almost identically to Moran's biography. We meet Johanna Morrigan in the 1990s, fourteen years old at the start of the novel, unhappily living in cramped conditions in working class Wolverhampton with her large family and masturbating furiously to experience some rush within the mundanity of her life. Johanna is mature, both in looks and in attitude, exemplified by the visiting council nurse mistaking Johanna's mother's new born twins as Johanna's own:
'This is all because I am fat. If you're going to be a fat teenaged girl, it becomes hard for people to guess how old you are. By the time you're in a 38DD bra, people are just going to presume you're sexually active, and have been having rough, regular procreative sex with alpha males on some wasteland. Chance would be a fine thing. I haven't even been kissed yet'.
The novel outlines Johanna's coming of age as she 'blags' her way into writing music reviews for NME magazine, loses her virginity, explores casual sex, falls madly for indie musician 'John Kite' after interviewing him, has her first epiphany about attitudes towards women's sexuality, and revises her tendency to invent herself as the cynic in order to get one over those she regards as superior in class. Johanna learns how to build the 'real Johanna'. I think it's an interesting direction for Moran because I approached it as a YA, but at its resolution I don't really think it's completely intended for that market despite the age of the protagonist. I would really treat it more like memoir, rather than as fiction, but this may be because it is so similar to Moran's real life.
Categorising it is not essential though: it's an enjoyable novel and Moran's funny, clever, joyful and perceptive style permeates the writing. Moran paints a visual joke with much of her writing, and while it is often about bleak material, there is always a wink in her descriptions: of their television being repossessed, 'The children line the route from the front room to the front door like it's a funeral - weeping as it leaves the house. We then go back into the front room, and stand around the empty spot - like sad woodland animals around Snow White's dead body'.
Johanna is a charming character, as is her brother Krissi, her crush John Kite and her incorrigible muso father. The staff at NME have some wonderfully witty dialogue as well.
Moran, who just recently interviewed Lena Durham for her new book, very much shares with her a penchant for discussing vaginas, and this novel is no exception. There is an inner eye roll from me at times, but I did enjoy the over the top description of cystitis in 'How To Build A Girl' merely for the fact that surely cystitis is an unfairly overlooked everyday horror. More of the mundane in high literature I say: 'There is a very particular noise women make when they have a pain in their reproductive chutes, caused by something unhappily trying to egotiate its way out. Years later, during childbirth, I recognise the self-same noises. I'm sure a musicologist could pin-point the exact pitching of 'vaginal immolation'. Perhaps they could play it on a church organ, whilst a room full of women wince'.
Moran is exactly the same age as me, so I feel quite attuned to her pop culture references but certainly for anyone who remembers nineties music fondly, this is a real celebration of that time. Indeed, this is one for those who want to reflect back fondly, but I think there is also enough timelessness in these adolscent issues that a teenaged audience now would find this equally rewarding.

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