Book Review: How To Build A Girl By Caitlin Moran

How To Build A Girl By Caitlin Moran - Hader

It’s far to say that I don’t share many traits with a teenage girl. In fact, I think it’s probably more accurate to say that I don’t share any, at least that society would deem stereotypical or acceptable! I am also sure that I am not Caitlin Moran’s target audience. That when she sat down to write ‘How To Build A Girl‘ she wasn’t doing so purely to provide me, a 31 year old male, with something to read over his three daily meals.

But there is just something about the way Moran writes that sucks me in and has meant that even though it is at times overly feminist and liberational, I also, randomly, enjoy it. I first read her musings when she wrote a column in the free Waitrose Weekend magazine, and then became hooked on her Times Newspaper column, before moving on to row many a mile listening to her narrate How To Be A Woman. So it seemed only right to continue this almost hetrosexual lesbianism by reading How To Build A Girl.

Caitlin Moran Typing - How To Build A Girl

That, and the fact that a lot has been made recently of it’s portrayal of mental health issues and the stresses and coping factors of growing up and finding your place in the world. A subject that is extremely important in my life.

The first thing that is obvious is that How To Build A Girl is very typically Moran. Her standard tone and language is there. The “I don’t care what you think” attitude and her strong outward persona instantly shining through the words. It’s very much a case that a spade is a spade, and whatever the most concise, descriptive and right word to use will be used, even if that word is fuck. This is a book that is designed in look to appeal to teenagers but written for the over 18s.

Moran’s who gives a shit attitude to language meant that I painted a completely clear image of the world, the characters and time frame in my mind. It’s set in the 1990s, and having grown up through them I was instantly back there. The tinny music, the neon colours, the dirt and simplicity of a life that was pre-digital. Cassette tapes, Saturday morning television, blue PE mats and wooden school benches. Everything just feels right and as I remember. The book feels on point and talking from experience, it’s lived the world it inhabits. This obvious knowledge is important, because while the book echoes Moran’s own history: setting, gender, career path all seemingly autobiographical, it is a work of fiction; but that didn’t stop me seeing Moran herself as the main character. It’s her in the Doc Martens, ripped tights and top hat.

Underage Drinking - How To Build A Girl By Caitlin Moran

I did keep returning to the same problem in the plot though. The age of everything and everyone. I know when it’s set, I can see the world and then suddenly I’m having a girl dropped into it who, on first greeting, is only using both hands and one foot to count her age. Yet, she’s discussing the world, and the maturity of growing up with a language, ideas and foresight that feel unnaturally developed. This may be in part down to my upbringing in rural Berkshire versus Moran’s in urban Wolverhampton. It may be council estate versus detached bungalow, but I just don’t believe a 14 year old would describe the world, and view societies acceptabilities in the way she does. Let alone be allowed to act that way by the family around her. I know it’s almost a blind naivety on my part, because it does happen, but reading it in such black and white prose just felt totally wrong.

This sense of unease towards the character wasn’t helped by the fact that as the story develops, her life becomes essentially more wild and simply, unbelievably, out of control. The tone of the book changes from initially feeling like you’re sneaking a peak at a little girls personal diary, with idle but harmless dreams of sex, drugs and rock and roll based on non existent media portrayals into, and without a real sense of time passing, an inner monologue, a running commentary of the slow death and destruction of everything respectable. It truly loses it’s innocence, and the longer this implosion goes on the harder it is to follow the time frame in which characters age and events occur. You can see the alcohol, the smoking, the sex, but never how old anybody is when it happens. Characters I’d painted as 30 turn out to be 20. Our Moran facsimilie, living the life of debauchery, is now 20, or was it 15 or 17. I never was sure. And it’s your guess as much as mine as to how many days, weeks, months or years actually pass as the pages turn. The book feels like it spans a far greater time period than the chapter titles claim.

Self Harm - How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran

Moving past, it’s failings with time, as I said at the start at lot has been made of the book with regard it’s portrayal of mental health, of peer pressure and the general responsibility of growing into society. Obviously it is all told and focused on the pressures faced mainly by women, but it is capable of crossing the gender boundaries in a lot of places. And while it’s good to create that discussion, to highlight these issues, I found the book difficult to really ally with on the stance it took. There are times when it’s obvious as to what the bigger picture Moran is trying to convey is, the pitfalls and dangers attempting to be highlighted, but I was just constantly overwhelmed by the feeling that Moran was able to bring the low points: the darkness and triggers to life with absolute, painful and dangerous clarity, but failed to convey the same conviction in reverse. The book seemed to just lack the strength to really believe in the other side of the argument. To really want to show you how good life could be. It almost feels like it’s having too much fun being drunk and having wild promiscuous sex to stop and tell you about the flowers and kittens. And this was highlighted most in a section in which Self Harm is raised without real warning. The imagery and description almost painting it as a useful tool in our lead characters world. Setting me instantly at odds with the tone of the book and Moran as the writer. Obviously, Moran knows this, and sensibly kills any notion to the virtues of this whilst quickly dowsing that idea that it is anything other than foolish. But the fact it set the argument up in the first place is enough to just break some of the trust I had in Moran.

On the whole, the book felt modern, easy to read, and brings it’s world to life with such photographic precision that I became engrossed in it, and loved spending time in its world. It is one of those books where you can taste every pint, smell the stale smoke in every pub and hear every screech of feedback through every amp. You can feel the characters get drunk, swear and fart. It’s a mental blur of a night out, a quick, crap shag behind the bins and a serious hangover the morning after, but that’s also it’s huge problem. It’s a black comedy of life. It’s scary that the book is all too true in places. And I hate to say it, but I felt reading the book there are people out there who would see it as justification for their own lives and actions. That because you associate it so strongly and contextually to Moran’s own life, that it feels too borderline to fact, and no longer fiction. I loved reading it but I hate that it’s left me feeling that the wild, out of control, binging lifestyle of the 1990s was ever acceptable or is something to aspire to. I truly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone young or impressionable.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

Comments are closed.