Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl is the story of Johanna Morrigan, poor, fat teenager from the economic backwater of 1990s Wolverhampton, and her transformation into legendary music critic and Lady Sex Adventurer, Dolly Wilde.
Thanks to a lot of hard graft at Wolverhampton's public library, where she can read the specialist press and order any album she likes for 20p, Morrigan/Wilde finds herself anointed into the pre-Internet indie music elite as star reviewer for the Disc & Music Echo. Once there, she learns that the best way to stay on top is to write like a critic, not a fan (like "some weird angry old man, puncturing the ball of every band who kicked it over my fence"), and to stand at the back of concerts, scowling with the other writers, instead of dancing at the front.
At first, underneath the top hat and thick, black eyeliner Morrigan adopts as Wilde's trademarks, Johanna is still a randy teenager waiting for her first kiss. Music is for men, and the further up the music hierarchy Wilde travels, the more this holds true. So Wilde tries to outdo the male bravado all around her. Having lost her virginity to the villain of the book — a middle-class music critic who got his job through his parents and comes from the same part of the UK as its current hyper-toff Prime Minister — she proceeds to shag any rockstar, roadie or critic she meets who lives a reasonable distance from the train home to Wolverhampton. From this, much bad sex results.
Moran's first novel follows the publication of her excellent feminist memoir, How to be a Woman. In that book, she details her own childhood in Wolverhampton, the eldest of seven children growing up on a council estate, and her escape in her teenage years through finding work as a music journalist. In How to Build and Girl we never meet the grown woman who is looking back, post-internet and post-childbirth, on her teenage years. So it's hard not to imagine the narrator as anything other than Moran herself, the hefty assurance printed at the front that this book is a work of fiction just another transparent teenage self-deception, like the one preventing her from seeing that her older brother is gay. Caitlin Moran was the coolest teenager in Britain in the 1990s. At seventeen she hosted indie music TV show Naked City and interviewed Bjork, Iggy Pop and Courtney Love. It's reassuring to learn through reading this book, then, that Moran was no different from any other teenager growing up at that time — or now, constructing the person she wanted to be out of the spangliest cultural flotsam she could find, and hoping nobody could see behind it all.
Morrigan's eventual decision to mothball Wilde and get back to the job of living up to her own potential is the closing, exhilarating message of this book. As such the book would make a great gift to any boy or girl in your life — whatever age — who is working out who they are and who they want to be. Although I can only hope for my daughter's sake that by the time she is coming of age, the atrocious sex will be as much a historical quirk as staying up late to tape songs off the radio.
How to Build a Girl [US]
How to Build a Girl [UK]
Becky Hogge (author of Barefoot into Cyberspace) is writer, campaigner and freelance optimist.