In the interests of honesty, I have to say that any book which has a girl on the front wearing Doc Martens (my preferred choice of shoe) is always going to appeal to me. The boots aren’t for everyone, and I think it’s fair to say that quite often they are worn by a certain type of person, someone who is often very musically interested – myself very much so included. Just from the photo, I wanted to know more.
How To Build A Girl is told from the first person narrative of fourteen year old Johanna Morrigan. Living on a council estate in Wolverhampton in the 90’s, Johanna’s story spares no expense in telling us the harsh, hilarious, and often reminiscent realities of her life. With a family who are mostly surviving because of the benefits they are entitled to, a dad who can’t quite let go of his failed musical career attempts, and a mum suffering from post natal depression, Johanna’s life could be described as somewhat hectic. Through the novel, we watch this fourteen year old girl as she grows in age, facing many of the trails of your typical fourteen year old, and many more unusual ones along the way.
If you don’t like anything too sexual, graphic, or even slightly obscene, then please don’t read this book. If anything is going to give you a bit of a head’s up to the kind of book it is, then it’s going to be the first page:
‘I am lying in bed, next to my brother, Lupin. He is six years old. He is asleep. I am fourteen. I am not asleep. I am masterbating’. (p. 4).
Yes, there you have it. The very first thing we are introduced to is our fourteen year old protagonist masturbating whilst she sleeps next to her baby brother. All in all, I think this is a pretty accurate representation of how the rest of the book develops, with sexual themes being recurrent throughout. In my opinion I found this opening highly amusing, having an impact that not many books centred upon teenage girls do. Whilst this was initially new and refreshing, I have to say that it got very boring, very quickly. I felt that the author was so determined to make sex a part of Johanna’s life and personality that she massively over did it, with the repetition going beyond the point of impact and into the realms of dullness.
Just as the author is very explicit on the sexual themes, she has also written a book which takes a very straight forward look at the realities of life on a council estate with families living on benefits. I think she did this very well, and looking into the lives of families living this way was very interesting and entertaining. The book is very colloquial and very much a product of its time. There are many mentions to the social contexts, including the political climate and figures such as Margaret Thatcher. Yet, having said that, what was really fascinating was just how relevant the topics and the living situations still are today. Now, I know this isn’t a historical novel and there hasn’t been a massive amount of time passed. Yet after ten years you’d like to think that some progression or changes for the better would have happened. What does it say about such a developed country that we can still live so largely in the past?
The biggest part of this book is the way in which Johanna becomes a part of the journalistic music industry, becoming very much involved in the lifestyle of rock and roll. As someone who loves music and is constantly going to gigs, I thought I’d really enjoy this plot idea. The scenes where Joanna attends her first gig, arriving unexpectedly at the front only to discover the tangles mass of sweating limbs and reckless movement of arms, was really enjoyable. I think that anyone who is very much into the live music scene would appreciate the comedy, and think back to their own first experiences. Yet, from these humble, realistic moments, the book just spiraled further and further into the realms of the ridiculous. Some of the situations which Johanna gets herself into were just completely ludicrous for a girl who we must remember is still only a young teenager. Whilst some of it could be taken with a pinch of salt, the ever increasing unrealistic scenes became quickly frustrating, making it very hard for me to connect with the book at all.
To push matters further, I have to say that I did not like the main character. Whilst I’m not someone who needs to always like characters from a novel, I have to feel some sort of engagement with them, and I just didn’t have that here. Quite frankly, I got to the stage where I no longer cared what happened to Johanna. Her speech, her snarky thoughts, her personality, it all became so repetitive. I feel as if the author was trying too hard to make the character distinct and to really drill in her personalities and quirkiness that it just became over saturated and drowned in its own exaggeration. Johanna became this massive caricature of herself and I really did not connect with her.
I left this book feeling very disappointed. I know that so many people have read this book and think it is brilliant, something which they also think of the author, Caitlin Moran. Whilst there were glimmers of something and moments of humour, I still felt that the entire thing fell very much flat.
Have you read this? What did you think?