Tumbling the building blocks: A review of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl

Cover of How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

“So what do you do when you build yourself—only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things?”

How To Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

 It is 1990 and Johanna Morrigan is fourteen years old, living in Wolverhampton, a city in the English West Midlands, with her unemployed rock-star-wannabe father, depressed mother, two brothers, and twin babies. Johanna has more childcare duties and financial worries than any teenage girl should have to deal with and she ultimately dreams of finding a way out.

In order to make this happen, Johanna reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde–fast talking, hard drinking Lady Sex Adventurer and freelance music journalist. Johanna is determined to build herself in the best way she knows how: on the fly. As Johanna navigates her way through this adult world as a working class girl, her notes are as follows:

How to Build a Girl

By sixteen, Johanna is living the life of lots of sex, lots of drug, and lots of rock ‘n’ roll all in an attempt to build herself, but she soon wonders if during all these wild adventures whether she has gone about this whole “building herself business” in all the wrong ways, and can she change it?

How to Build a Girl is a fast- paced tale of a working class girl whose brains and way with words ensure that her everyday actions will lead to wild parties and unexpected opportunities that allow her to escape the drudgery that is Wolverhampton and somehow find success in the most round-about manner feasible.

This new book reads very much like Moran’s semi-autobiography; she also grew up in a large working class family and became a successful music journalist at a young age (although Moran declares it is pure fiction). Whatever the truth is, Moran has created an authentic teenage voice through her character Johanna. Moran puts the pubescent roller coaster on full display from the exaggerated emotional response to ANYTHING and EVERYTHING to the self-conscious body image moments in front of the mirror.

While Johanna is often over the top and highly excitable in all that she does, it is a very true-to-life portayal. Everyone as a teenager has had moments of exclaiming that it is the end of the world as he or she knows it because this or that happened etc. I believe I said this more than once while growing up…I sometimes still say it on occasion.

How to Build a Girl is also very frank about sex, specifically female sexuality. Moran does not shy away from the subject, but places it front and centre with a wank (specifically, Johanna masturbating in the dead of night next to her sleeping brother with a pillow between them for privacy, because, yes, young girls have urges too and those urges need to be satisfied). Aside from the occasional wank, Johanna also goes out and has lots of sex with lots of different people because, as Moran puts it, “it is what young teenage girls will do. It’s what I did. It’s what my friends did.” Moran said her intention behind this book and the character Johanna is to reclaim the word “slag” and “slut” from society’s shaming culture and renaming it fun names, such as “lady sex pirate” or “swash fuckler.” It’s not about shaming but experiencing. When I attended Moran’s launch at the Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon, she described the teenage girl’s life in the perfect fashion: “It is about going out and having amazing experiences and awful experiences, which later turn into amazing anecdotes.” And she’s right, you know. After all, how many of us have gone out for drinks talking about our latest adventure in bed or otherwise, both good and bad? All of us, I would think.

While the reader may not be able to relate to everything Johanna goes through in the book, it is all honest and it is all written in a hilarious fashion that only Caitlin Moran is capable of. You may not always be able to say, “I’ve done that,” but you don’t mind going along for the ride with this fun and easy read.

Essentially, How to Build a Girl is about class, social privilege, feminism, and building yourself and rebuilding yourself as you go through life. Johanna may think she has the right building blocks at first, but she soon learns there is no right or easy way to build yourself. Johanna Morrigan is a beautiful work in progress and Caitlin Moran’s book ends with a promise that we haven’t seen the last of this spunky teenage girl.

5 out of 5 book thumbs up

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How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, published in Canada by HarperCollins Canada, © 2014

Available at Indigo, Amazon, and independent bookstores everywhere.

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Life after loss: A review of Wake by Anna Hope

Wake“Wake: 1) Emerge or cause to emerge from sleep. 2) Ritual for the dead. 3) Consequences or aftermath”

Wake by Anna Hope

London, post World War I, 1920. Three women, each marred by her own disparate loss, try to come to terms with what life after war really means.

Always a fan of historical fiction, I was immediately drawn to this book. On first impression, Wake‘s cover gives one the illusion that this book is a typical war love story. Wrong. Hope’s richly enthralling story is so much more than that, as it explores the complicated layers of human grief, casting a very real and honest light. The three women of the novel are all from different walks of life with different stories. Hettie is a young dance instructress at the Palais. Ready to start living again (she has lost her father to the Spanish flu and her brother to shell shock), Hettie can’t understand why the rest of London won’t move on with her. It is not until she meets a wealthy yet strange young man at an underground dance club that her eyes truly open to the often inconsolable scars left by the chaos and destruction of war and that, perhaps, it isn’t a door so easily closed. Evelyn works at the Pensions Exchange coming into contact with thousands of men looking to claim benefits from mentally and physically debilitating wounds. Embittered by the loss of a lover, she has little empathy to offer them and looks to find comfort in the company of her brother. But her brother hasn’t been the same since his return from the front, and he may be just as lost as herself, if not more so. Finally, Ada is beset by visions of her son, convinced he is still alive without solid proof otherwise. As a result, she finds herself becoming further estranged from her husband.

Wake focuses on the emotional turmoil of these women’s lives while at the same time weaving in the journey of the Unknown Soldier, from his excavation in France to his arrival on Armistice Day to be entombed at Westminster Abbey. The brief interludes where the reader witnesses the body’s journey to London are stock full of symbolism, giving the reader a sense of the necessity for this healing act, to console and bring the people together again.

The book develops over a span of only five days, expertly braiding the women’s stories together, uniting them in a gradual revelation that is beautifully fulfilled by the end of the book, linking Evelyn’s brother to Ada’s son. Hope does fairly well in balancing her four interchanging plot lines. Evelyn and Ada are heartbreakingly, and sometimes brutally, real in grappling with their grief. Evelyn is not easy to love, and I often found myself put off by her abrupt manner and lack of sympathy for the plight of others, such as when a man in the office experiences “shell shock,” and she simply waits for the fit to pass without offering any sort of help. But that is also the point. Hope isn’t trying to make these characters one-dimensional or easy to love—they are complicated. Experiencing and dealing with loss is not an easy task and neither does it have one unanimous response, as we are all well aware of.

The one thing I find that Wake falls short on is its characterization of Hettie. Unfortunately, she is less compelling than Evelyn or Ada, possibly because of her disconnect with loss. I often found her falling into the role of a secondary character, especially after she meets Evelyn’s brother, Ed, who manages to “steal” the scene with his tortured mannerisms, plagued by memories of war. I definitely would have liked to see more of Hettie interacting with her own brother, which would have only helped to solidify the book’s predominant themes and allowed Hettie to have more of a voice. Aside from this slight lapse, Hope allows her characters to speak for themselves with engaging dialogue and indicative actions.

A brilliant debut, Wake is in the end well researched, vividly illustrating time and place for the reader. London is depicted as broken yet vibrant as people pick up the pieces and begin to allow themselves one dance or one fleeting smile. Hope offers no easy solutions in her book, but she does end with a hopeful promise of the human ability to “wake” in war’s aftermath and carry on.

I definitely recommend picking this book up. It has the potential to resonate with its readers and stay with them long after the last breath-taking sentence, which leaves you to your own conclusions of what will become of these true-to-life women.

5 out of 5 book thumbs up

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Review copy provided to me by McClelland & Stewart

Wake by Anna Hope, published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart,  © 2014

Available at McClelland & Stewart, Amazon, Indigo, and independent bookstores everywhere February 11, 2014.