October’s Bookclub Review: How to Build a Girl

Thursday 30 October 2014 by

How to Build a Girl, Caitlin Moran, Book, Ebury PublishingHow to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

Published by Ebury Publishing

My name’s Johanna Morrigan. I’m fourteen, and I’ve just decided to kill myself.

I don’t really want to die, of course! I just need to kill Johanna, and build a new girl.

It’s 1990. The Happy Mondays are on Top of the Pops, Thatcher’s almost gone and a life is so awful here in Wolverhampton that something drastic has to give.

So, I will build this new girl out of library books, pop music, eyeliner and feedback! Things do not go smoothly. In fact, I…

… Get nervous and talk like Elvis a lot;

… Force myself to smoke;

… Almost expire through wanting to be kissed;

… Take really rough speed;

… Fail to recognise my brother is gay!

… Become confused as to whether or not I actually have a boyfriend;

… Engage in the most inept self-harming session ever;

… Have sex with a man with a uselessly large penis;

… And drink too, too, too much, everytime.

My life is basically The Bell Jar written by Adrian Mole. But in the end, like all great stories, I did it all for a girl. Me.


If you have read Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, then her latest offering, the fiction novel How to Build a Girl, will be remarkably recognisable; a semi-autobiographical tale of a teenage girl from a large family in Wolverhampton, who heads to London and starts working as a critic at a music magazine. There are some alterations, of course, and I expect that the embellishments go further than just switching sisters to brothers and altering some names, but nonetheless it’s a very familiar story.

Johanna is less of a sympathetic hero and more of a comforting one. We have all been that awkward person – the dreamer, the romantic, but ultimately the gangling, clumsy, hormonal teenager that gets it wrong. You don’t necessarily like her (let’s face, who likes their teenage self), but you find some comfort in the realisation that you are not the only one. The joy of Moran’s writing is how accurately she portrays it, with uncompromising honesty and humour.

However, it is also this uncompromising nature that can make this book hard to read at times; it’s often like being bashed over the head by a particularly obnoxious teenager. There is nothing subtle about Johanna’s journey, or her ambition to “create” a new girl, and a new persona. Even the obsession with sex becomes a repetitive monotone.

There is a certain joy in that too; as I said, there is a fair amount of familiarity in Johanna because we have all been her once. We have all fallen in love with wrong person, all made utter fools of ourselves, and all desperately tried to be popular (usually by being mean, as that seems to get the laughs at first). But it often makes for uncomfortable reading.

I like Johanna. She’s unafraid, if uncertain of herself, and has the kind of adventurous spirit that means she’s willing to try everything. She also has the ineffable ability to bounce back. Despite her desperation to be popular through being a bitch, she is actually a hugely likeable character, and ends up making friends (through no apparent skill of her own).

If we were to compare Moran’s books, I would say I preferred How to be a Woman, because it was inexhaustibly brilliant, but there are moments of that brilliance in How to Build a Girl, it just feels like it was uncertain ground for Moran – that the story was half-formed, and it took the autobiographical moments to pull it together.

I have a huge girl-crush on Caitlin Moran, so in many respects she can do no wrong, but in others she is a fledgling fiction writer and that comes across. It has the overwrought enthusiasm and rough edges of a debut novel, but with the tricks and nuances of an experienced writer, which makes it an odd blend of easy reading and baffling structure. Moran has the golden egg of writers – good characters – but is still experimenting with setting, and sometimes you feel like it is cautious ground she is treading.

I enjoyed this book on several levels, and it was an entertaining read, but I can’t help but feel that Moran’s next outing in to the world of fiction will be one step better. She has more to give.

What did you think of How to Build a Girl?

November’s House of Blog Bookclub is Booker-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan! Tweet your thoughts through the hashtag #HoBBookclub on Twitter or write on the wall on the House of Blog Facebook page.

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