Monday, 7 July 2014

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

published 2014





All that summer, as I end up in his flat over and over, drinking his wine, having his bad pervy sex, and then lying on the bed, talking about Auden’s influence on Morrissey, I feel like we’re in a huge, ongoing, surreal session of the Rizla game, in which Rich has stuck a Rizla on my head on which is written either ‘My girlfriend’ or ‘Not my girlfriend’, and I am having to guess which it is with a series of questions which he can only answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. This whole situation seems like a massive societal problem. Why have we not yet discovered a way to find out if someone’s in love with you? Why is there no information on this? Why has science not attended to this matter



Whether I’m in love with him seems far less important than whether he’s in love with me. I never take me to one side and ask myself, ‘Do you actually want him?’, because I feel like I never really see me around, any more. This is another drawback of living in a house with no mirrors.


observations: This is Caitlin Moran’s brand new novel, as opposed to the anthology of her feature pieces (Moranthology) or her memoir/feminist tract (How to Be a Woman) or her sitcom pilot (Raised by Wolves). Of course this one is fiction, and the narrator has a different name. But it’s clear that Moran takes her material where she can find it, which is in her own early life. As everyone (in the UK anyway) must surely know, she grew up on benefits on a council estate in Wolverhampton, in a loving but dysfunctional family: father on Disability, no money at all, random education, endless siblings. She was obviously extremely bright, and well-read (via libraries), and she became a music press writer very young, and is now one of the best-paid journalists in the UK. (For an illuminating interview with her, click here.)

So no surprises that Johanna Morrigan, protagonist, shares a lot of that history. I found the book immensely readable, I raced through it, but I did not find it laugh out loud funny, although other people did. It raised a smile from time to time, and also some pouty-faces when she wrote in detail about things I didn’t want to hear about. Nothing – no bodily function, no sexual possibility – is left unexplored. (She seems obsessed with masturbation, something she shares with Julie Burchill, mentioned several times in the book, a kind of prototype Moran for the 1980s rather than 90s).

But she does write extremely well about being a teenage girl, and the problems and breakthrough moments that result, the goods and bads. This might be surprising – given that her life experiences are so very different from anyone else’s – but there can’t be many women of any background or age who wouldn’t have some moments of recognition in this book, that feeling of ‘I know exactly what she means, and I’ve never seen it written down before.’

She’s also great at describing a time before Google:
We spend the next hour talking about what we know about Serge Gainsbourg. In the days before the internet, this is how you found out things about music – there was nowhere all the facts were kept. You learned things piecemeal, in conversations, instead – sometimes having to go all the way to a bar in New York, at 3am, to find out something that twenty years later, you could have just discovered using an iPhone, on a bus.
And what goes on in nightclubs:
I’m in a kiss! The captains of this nightclub are picking their teams of Sexually Active Teenagers – and my name, finally, has been called!




A highly enjoyable book, with a lot to say about how young women see themselves, and how they arrange themselves around men, and how they can grow out of that. The heroine manages to combine being self-deprecating and making mistakes, with being positive about life and sex, and taking control of her own destiny. A rare combination. 

The jukebox picture at the top is from the collection of great James Jowers photos at George Eastman HouseThe other two  photos – club life, musicians, indie music - are from Wikimedia Commons; 

10 comments:

  1. I'm the one in the dark then, as although the name is vaguely familiar I couldn't tell you a thing about her. She's just never hit my radar. I seem to recall her being mentioned in Linda Grant's Library Murdering short.

    I did have to do a double-take then and now, as in my head I get her confused with Carole Morin - someone who is on my shelves.

    Can't say that the nothing-off limits element attracts me and I'm as far from prudish as you could possibly get.

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    1. Well I've never heard of Carole Morin, so we're quits! You're right about her being mentioned in the Linda Grant piece, apparently they live near each other. Caitlin M writes almost exclusively for the Times and Sunday Times, so if you don't read them (or pay to see them online) you might not see her - I won't support Murdoch papers so I don't usually see her there, but am aware of her for other reasons.

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  2. Moira, thanks for an engaging review of Caitlin Moran's near autobiographical book and the insight into her life. I like it when a book raises "a smile from time to time," especially one that I didn't like much. It redeems itself. I think every book no matter how serious should do that—raise a smile every few pages.

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    1. I agree with you totally Prashant - I can forgive a lot from a book that makes me smile. Miserable books are much more likely to earn my dislike.

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  3. Moira - Hmmm...I'll be honest - not sure this one is for me. On the one hand, just from the bits you've shared I can see Moran's writing skill (which I knew about anyway). And it is interesting to look at coming of age, so to speak, from that 'what does this really mean about society' point of view. On other other hand, I'm not one for detailed descriptions of some things, and I'm usually put off by the idea of 'nothing left unexplored.' Truly on the fence about this one, but your review is, as ever, top-notch.

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    1. Thanks Margot. You'd have to be in a certain kind of mood to enjoy her book I think.

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  4. I loved How To Be A Woman: Liz & I held a book group at WI on it...it proved to create quite a stir among some of our members! Liz & I loved it, and enjoy her frankness, honesty and "I shouldn't say this but I'm going to anyway" attitude! I'll have to get this one for my holiday! X

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    1. I think you'll probably love it then Lucy - I think some people will find it a bit much, but you sound strong-hearted. Have a great holiday - is this the one you won with your BEST BLOG AWARD?! I was so pleased for you....so well-deserved

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  5. I like that description about what it was like before the internet. I remember a time when I despaired of finding any new good contemporary mystery authors and worrying that I would just have to reread all my books. With the internet, I have found so many authors (old and new) that I can't keep up.

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    1. Yes, I know exactly what you mean, and if you did find books that might be interesting, you had no means of getting an unbiased view of them, or a review by someone who actually like mystery stories. I'd forgotten that aspect of pre-Internet days, but it's absolutely true.

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