Book Review (of sorts) – ‘How To Build A Girl’ by Caitlin Moran

This is a momentous blog post – it features the first ever public sharing of the contents of my journal. Whilst I was going to write this piece as a straightforward book review, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do some mulling about my own experiences of being a teenager. There’s definitely more self-examination here than reflections on the book, for which I apologise, but if you read the book then you’ll understand why – it’s the sort of novel that makes you stop, sigh, and think. I will strive to write book reviews in a more focussed manner in the future…

How to Build a Girl is a rich and comprehensive account of a teenage girl growing up in a council house in Wolverhampton, her family in receipt of benefits. The girl is bright, articulate and well-read but experiences something common to most teenager girls – extreme discomfort with her identity and body. If you have ever been a teenager who hates themselves, this book it for you; and if you haven’t then this book is still for you so that you can understand exactly how it feels.

I despised being a teenager. I loathed the angst, the misery and falling for boys who didn’t love me back and I hated that every aspect of being a teenager was a cliché – you feel like an absolute train wreck but nobody cares because they’ve already seen dozens of other ‘youths’ going through the same and resurfacing unscathed on the other side. The changed perspective of reading this book about the teenage experience now that I am an adult was hugely cathartic for me and I found that I had boundless sympathy, pity and love for the main character, stemming from a simple gratitude that I am not a teenager anymore.

The main premise of the book is that the main character, Johanna Morrigan, decides to reinvent herself following an embarrassing episode that makes her a local laughing stock. She renames herself Dolly Wilde and develops a new persona, new interests and a new appearance with different clothes and makeup (“I painted Dolly’s face on top of mine.”). This really resonated with me as I also used to periodically reinvent myself as I stumbled through the teenage years. I hated the skin that I was in and felt perpetually awkward, unattractive and out of place. I remember crying after one particularly bad day at school and begging God to turn me into one of the perfect, popular girls just for a day so that I could experience what it felt like to be liked and to be confident. This book reminded me of those wretched years and perfectly articulates and executes how they felt.

However, I feel quite uncomfortable writing about this book on account of how sexually explicit it is and this, in a way, really undermines the potential power of the book. The book is explicit from the first page, but Moran’s witty and engaging writing style draws you on (plus, I paid good money for the book – I wasn’t willing to abandon it!) and the book is peppered with sex references – I found it to be more explicit than DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was, of course, banned after publication. It’s a great shame because I would love to be able to rave about this book to friends or recommend it to my nieces when they become angst-riddled teenagers, but I would be reluctant to actively recommend something so explicit. Furthermore, I was frustrated that Moran committed the cardinal sin of popular culture when portraying sex: there was no reference to contraception in any of the episodes and no repercussions of this anywhere down the line (I felt certain that Johanna would be pregnant by the end of the book). On the other hand, I feel a certain sense of awe that Moran is able to write to openly about sex and sexuality – I’m a massive prude and can’t believe I’m actually writing a piece that contains ‘the s word’!

I found the passages towards the end of the book where Johanna, finally comfortable with who she is, explains about the trial and error process of reinventing yourself incredibly moving:

“Some versions of you will end in dismal failure – many prototypes won’t even get out of the front door (…) others will achieve temporary success – hitting new land-speed records, and amazing all around you, and then suddenly, unexpectedly exploding like the Bluebird on Coniston Water. But one day you’ll find a version of you that will get you kissed, or befriended, or inspired, and you will make notes accordingly: staying up all night to hone, and improve upon a tiny snatch of melody that worked.”

I spent most of secondary school (ages 11-16) doing the awkward and uncomfortable trial and error of “who am I?”. By college (ages 16-18), I knew what worked and what didn’t and spent two years being somebody new (again) and trying to make new friends. I’ve kept a journal since I was nine and this is the first time that I have ever publicly shared any of the contents of the dozens of notebooks that I have filled. This is from an entry that I wrote in the college library after I had taken my last exam:

“As I sit here for the last time, I cannot help but wonder if I will ever be back here, if I will drift down the corridors, run my fingernail along the spines of the books in the library, smile and greet a hundred people between lessons. I hope so because, between the bookshelves, the ghost of the girl who I was remains. There’s no denying that I have changed, and I feel like I am leaving a part of me behind here and as I walk down the drive, I will see the figure get smaller in the distance and the young me will just be a memory.”

I remember writing elsewhere about the guilt I felt about accumulating so many abandoned versions of myself that I had left at the roadside of life’s journey and, in my mind’s eye, somewhere along the way I started imagining them all congregating in that college library, which I can now see filled with dozens of ghosts of failed or former versions of me. Occasionally there are still new additions to the crowd because I don’t think we ever cease the quest of identity and self-discovery, or stop having those epiphanies where we feel that we must change everything about ourselves immediately; and that is absolutely fine because it’s how we develop and change as humans.

Naturally, a book about a teenager reinventing herself would appeal to me, but I maintain that this book would have the scope for a much louder voice if it had been written without all the sex references. However, either way this book is a reassuring pat on the back for anyone (teenager or otherwise) who has ever struggled with identity and I would therefore recommend it.

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