How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, book review: Debut novel has heart, but lacks polish

This isn’t a sleek, slick novel, but it is rambunctious and raw-edged

Writing a book is hard, Cailtin Moran reminds us in the Acknowledgments section of this, her first novel for adults. It is “literally worse than giving birth to a baby – in hell – then dying, then being brought back and having to give birth to another baby that, this time, is coming out of your eyes.” This observation is true, and worth remembering, especially by critics.

It is also expressed in a particular verbal style that has been dominant in British comedy and criticism for a couple of decades now, and of which Moran is a prominent proponent: ebullient, bug-eyed, prone to deliberately unwieldy metaphors and language at once childlike and ironically formal, hectically heightened to evade any suspicion of sentimentality or solemn self-regard.

It is the style of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, of Eddie Izzard, of Richard Ayoade; of the odd child who has learned to unman bullies using funny voices and elaborate language. If you grew up reading Smash Hits, quoting Blackadder at length in the playground and calling people “milady” for no clear reason, it may well be a cornerstone of your own sense of humour; even if you didn’t, you’ll recognise it, and know it to be at once charming and a bit exhausting.

It can also be nihilistic: archness as a perpetual defence against the vulnerability of being sincere. But Moran’s special trick, here as in her successful 2011 primer on contemporary feminism How to Be a Woman, is combining her relentless bouncy irony with flashes of heart-on-sleeve straightforwardness, and a general predisposition towards hope.

Cynicism is the one real enemy she identifies, as her story follows a precocious, flamboyant, zaftig young writer from a Wolverhampton council estate to a career as a music writer at the heart of the London indie scene of the 1990s. Young Johanna – having adopted, for print, the suitably cutesy/clever pseudonym Dolly Wilde - learns quickly that to be a fan is uncool, and so becomes a doyenne of the hatchet job, only to repent this sourness and embrace loving things and all the risks that brings.

It’s not just by noting the arduousness of writing a book that Moran pre-empts negative reviews - the whole story ultimately argues against the sort of self-protective cynicism that has us sniping at one another’s best efforts, an argument that is even more relevant to today’s culture of offhand online character assassination as to Moran’s 90s context.

Readers with knowledge of Moran’s own background may notice family resemblances between her and Johanna, though an Author’s Note strenuously denies that this is autobiography. In precise terms, no doubt it isn’t, but nor is it quite a work of invention; this is learning born of direct experience. Indeed, in inventing Johanna/Dolly as her avatar, Moran practices the very act that the book concerns itself with, and to which its title refers: self-reinvention.  

The book feels even more like thinly-veiled memoir when Johanna dips out of her teenage memories to offer an observation from a current perspective – a reference to something having been “so popular in the 90s”, or a comparison to the experience of childbirth.

These dispatches from the present are intermittent and not quite successful: they break the flow of Johanna’s charmingly galumphing narcissism, and make you wonder just who is remembering all of this.

Elsewhere, the humour can strike odd, duff notes – why even include a joke if the punchline is as rough as “When God gives you no lemons – make nonmonade!”? An unmediated adolescent perspective might just get away with this – the jokes are poor because their crafter is unsophisticated – but the hints that there is a grown-up in charge just make you wonder if the whole thing shouldn’t be a bit more polished. Polish, however, is manifestly and defiantly not the point.

This isn’t a sleek, slick novel, but it is a rambunctious, raw-edged, silly-profound and deeply relatable guide to what your worst mistakes can teach you, and it has much to offer teenagers both actual and inner.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea