“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.)
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?