“How to Build a Girl” is, as the title suggests, a semi-autobiographical account of a girl’s teenage years of self discovery or invention. The close similarity of the title to Moran’s earlier, non-fictional book, “How to be a Woman” has led some readers to see this book as a sequel of sorts, which is entirely natural. But that expectation leads to disappointment, because “Girl” is in many ways simply a novelisation of “Woman”. It’s entertaining, undoubtedly, but ploughs the same narrow furrow that Moran has made her own. (by way of example, her column in yesterday’s Times (29/5/15) is on “the things people from a large family know that other people don’t”, such as how to make meals go further.)

In the introduction to “How to Build a Girl” Moran claims that the novel is fictional, however close the apparent parallels with her life may appear. This leaves the reader guessing – did this or that lurid incident in the novel really happen, or is it invention? Are these just a series of pub tales woven into a “kind-of” novel, half-truths with just the names changed? I think I can mostly spot where she moves into invention quite easily – the tone changes, becoming less sincere and believable. To be fair I don’t think I am the target audience for this novel – which is a pity, because I usually love Moran’s work. She is at her best when she writes about social issues – her articles on the bedroom tax for example are outstanding – and while there is some social commentary here (we get it, growing up on benefit in 1990’s Wolverhampton was grim) it usually takes second place to the shall we say “bawdier” content.

The narrator of “Girl” self consciously reinvents herself as “Dolly Wilde” and becomes a music critic for a popular music magazine, not a million miles away from the trajectory of Moran’s own early career. This is the so-called “girl building” which the novel purports to be about. This struck me as contrived – do we really all so self-consciously adopt a persona with costume, mannerisms and language to suit? Her brother Krissi by comparison is a well realised character who seems to know himself and has no need to develop an external shell, and makes the point that the narrator’s advice is not an instruction manual. Normally that would be blindingly obvious, but the parallels between this novel and Moran’s earlier work could easily lead people to miss the irony. Self invention is perhaps not the best way to build a girl, even if she gets there in the end. Incidentally, the fact that Caitlin, sorry Johanna, doesn’t notice that Krissi is gay (despite it being waved in her face), is one of the nicer, subtler touches in the novel.

In the acknowledgements at the end of this novel, Moran gives the usual thanks, and writes about how difficult the novel was to produce. This is surprising – it gives the appearance of being effortless, and not particularly substantial, but when she describes telling her agent “I can’t write this book..I’ve made a terrible error” ten times, I believe her. Making something new out of “another book full of wanking and shagging” (her emphasis) was swimming too close to the shore. She is a better writer than this, and just needs to find a new topic. Fiction sells, but is it where she is at her best?


P.S. Johanna’s career as a music critic is based upon her being horribly abusive towards all the bands she reviews, and late in the book she has an epiphany of sorts when she realises that this is not the writer she wants to be. Being critical of bands you like is dishonest and unworthy. It did make me wonder whether my reviews on this blog where at times unnecessarily critical, and whether I should focus more on the positive aspects of the books I read. So if nothing else it was a useful corrective to that tendency, even if I have not been as negative as Dolly Wilde.