So I peer beyond the parapet of middlebrow interwar women’s writing and detective fiction to tackle something that’s very new but set in the very early nineties, a story about a girl who’s too big, too bright, and–at times–too brave. Moran’s pragmatic, if sometimes problematic, brand of feminism informs How to Build a Girl, which works to some extent as a companion piece to the early Adrian Mole books–it’s peculiarly British, and it’s about teenage lust, angst, dysfunctional families and communities, and poverty. It is not, however, quite as clever–Sue Townsend’s work functioned on multiple levels, whereas How to Build a Girl is fairly straightforward.
Johanna is 15ish at the start of the novel, unkissed and undefined, with an ear for music and a nose for a sharp turn of phrase. Her family struggles to survive on her father’s disability benefit, and some of the best parts of the book are Moran’s rage against the unfairnesses of the British benefit system, how once-thriving communities of miners and factory workers are now husks of their former selves, the last generation to work giving birth to children who probably never will. Johanna, through sheer chutzpah and chance, aided only by a library card and her family’s belief that she can do something, even if they don’t quite know what, builds herself into a girl who can escape Wolverhampton and the cycle of unemployment, early pregnancy and a life spent never having enough. She becomes Dolly Wilde, a music journalist and reviewer, joining an all-male team and learning that vitriol gets more responses than kindness–and then having to unlearn everything she knows. On the way, she gets kissed, and shagged, and parties with rock stars–and the book is also good at detailing how overtaken by lust and longing and hormones teenage girls can be. American Pie was about four guys who plot to lose their virginity, but similarly gleeful films and books about teenage girls who want to have sex because they want to have sex, not because they want to fit in, or are being coerced by their boyfriends, are thin on the ground in these chaste Twilight-times.
However, although there are good bits, and funny and absurd bits, and Johanna’s awkwardness is endearing at times, How to Build A Girl never quite came together for me. I think partly it’s because the voice is so familiar–having read Moran’s How to Be a Woman and Moranthology, How to Build a Girl comes across as more of the same but fictionalised. Because of this, Johanna was never quite convincing as a teenager for me; there was too much self-awareness and theorising. It’s not that teenagers can’t be precocious and brilliant–it’s just that there is a difference between the diction of an intelligent teenager and an adult, I think. Perhaps if it had been written in the third person it might have made a difference–the first person reinforces the conflation of Moran and her character. Also, ironically, seeing as Johanna’s journey echoes Moran’s to a great extent, Johanna’s big break and sudden shift from babysitting to backstage never quite rings true. I am interested to see what Moran writes next in the way of fiction.