Entertainment Book Reviews

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Girl Talk: Superstar Caitlin Moran's debut novel

How To Build A Girl, Ebury Press, €17.95, 344 pages, available with free P&P on www. kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

Edel Coffey

Published 05/07/2014 | 02:30

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Caitlin Moran
Caitlin Moran

Last March, the National Concert Hall was taken over by a grown woman wearing the standard 1990s uniform of maudlin teenage girls everywhere – lumberjack shirt, cut-off denim shorts, black tights and Dr Marten boots. The woman was Caitlin Moran, the columnist and newly anointed godhead of womanhood after the publication of her memoir, How To Be A Woman.

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The NCH was packed to overflowing and the stalls were thrumming with the kind of hormonal murmur that is usually only heard at boyband concerts or opening nights of films such as Twilight. The atmosphere was almost cult-like as nigh-on 1,200 women cheered the embracing of body hair, soft stomachs and their right to choose.

Moran has been credited with introducing feminism to a new generation of women, and How To Be A Woman was certainly one that I would like to have read as a teenage girl.

Perhaps, then, it makes sense that she has just published her first work of fiction, How To Build A Girl, which reads like a coming-of-age novel redux of her bestselling memoir.

It tells the story of 14-year-old Johanna Morrigan, who lives on a council estate in Wolverhampton with her many siblings and struggling parents. They're working-class and living on benefits, with no money to spare. Their television is hired. Their kitchen countertops are smeared with margarine. Their mother is dealing with post-natal depression after the arrival of the unexpected twins, while their father is a feckless failed pop star who has yet to give up on his dreams.

Moran takes pains in the opening pages to assert her status as an inventor of stories, not truths. She dedicates the book to her parents, "who thankfully are nothing like the parents in this book", and goes on in her author's note to write, "Johanna is not me. Her family, colleagues, the people she meets and her experiences are not my family, my colleagues, the people I met or my experiences. This is a novel and it is all fictitious."

But there is no denying the similarities between Moran's own experience and Johanna's story. Moran grew up on a council estate in Wolverhampton with her second-generation Irish parents and seven siblings, and life was far from easy.

In the novel, Johanna drops out of school and starts writing for a music magazine at a precociously young age (Moran started writing for Melody Maker when she was 16) and she goes on a journey of discovery through sex, music, drugs and alcohol.

Johanna decides, on the advice of her cool (read sullen) cousin Ali, that she just has to fake it till she makes it, and so she changes her name to Dolly Wilde, after Oscar's lesbian alcoholic niece who died tragically young.

Johanna/Dolly's bravado is heart-breaking as she lobs herself into every situation like a suicide bomber, mortifying herself live on television after winning a poetry competition; pretending to be a hard-drinking, hard-smoking jaded music critic to impress the much older staff of the London music magazine where she gets a job; abasing herself in various sexual situations.

There are a lot of positive messages about the importance of the warm, familiar embrace of family in these pages, and a lot of lessons about the importance of self-esteem.

I enjoyed this book, probably because I too wore cut-off denim shorts and checked shirts in the 1990s. There was definitely a huge rush of nostalgia reading the band names and brand names of the time. And the warm depiction of familial love and support sends a very positive message about the important things in life.

But while it is well-written and often funny, it doesn't break out of the confines of the coming-of-age genre in any remarkable way.

Moran has to be admired for the positive message she is trying to send to girls who are still taught they should desperately want to be beautiful – but not how to cope when they turn out to not be. By showing how Johanna finds a way of expressing herself through her talents and not her looks, Moran is setting a positive example (even though Johanna makes a lot of poor decisions along the way, what teenage girl doesn't?).

I did have a niggling feeling while reading Johanna's story. While I was basking in the warm glow of nostalgia, a thought kept intruding, 'Who exactly is this book for?' Is the best thing about this novel – its positive message for teenage girls – negated by the fact that any modern-day 14-year-old girl would probably find this a little alienating? Where are the mobile phones, the social networking, the jungle that is school?

Would any young girl be able to relate to Johanna, or will only Caitlin Moran's target audience of 30-something women just like Moran herself get something out of this story? Or perhaps the universal female adolescent dilemmas of "I'm fat, I'm ugly, I'll never have my own life" are timeless themes regardless of the era.

Ultimately, this feels more like a slight, albeit enjoyable, exercise in 90S nostalgia rather than a novel that 14-year-olds today will relate to. Either way, Moran is not likely to lose face with her legion of fans who will devour this and identify with it from the safety of 2014.

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