By Caitlin Moran
Harper. 341 pp. $26.99
In the author’s note to her rambunctious novel “How to Build a Girl,” Caitlin Moran insists that her teenage protagonist, Johanna Morrigan, is not herself, and that her story is fiction.
But the plot mirrors Moran’s own unlikely leap onto the masthead of a storied music paper by the age of 16, as described in her memoir, “How to Be a Woman” (2011).
Like her creator, Johanna starts life squashed with her big family into a tiny council house in Wolverhampton — in England’s Black Country — named for the coal seams that made the area rich in the Industrial Revolution. By the time she is growing up in the 1980s, however, the pits are tapped out, the industry eviscerated by Thatcher and the inhabitants scraping by on government benefits and booze.
Johanna, meanwhile, is in the grip of adolescent desperation for experience, friendship, money, sex — anything that might get her out of the house and out of Wolverhampton, even if only in her unbridled imagination.
When we meet her, she’s quietly masturbating in bed next to her 6-year-old brother, trying not to think about his presence (eventually, she places a pillow between them — “our little, friendly Berlin Wall”).
In addition to young Lupin, there are her parents, older brother Krissi and the baby twins, whose unexpected arrival has alienated Johanna from her depressed mother.
Her father is a wannabe rock star surviving on disability benefits, whose real talent is finding a way to live it up on someone else’s tab.
Johanna is her father’s daughter. When she discovers that it’s possible to earn money writing about music — even if, in these dark pre-Internet days, she has to pre-order CDs from the library and invent what they sound like while she’s waiting — she spots her opportunity.
She bombards the male staff of the snarky, ink-smeared Disc & Music Echo (a stand-in for Melody Maker, where Moran got her start) until they grudgingly start to print and pay her.
Piling on eyeliner and a jaunty top hat, she rechristens herself “Dolly Wilde,”after Oscar’s niece (explaining to her skeptical brother, “She was, like, this amazing alcoholic lesbian who was dead scandalous, and died really young”). And she’s on her way.
The relationships between Johanna and her siblings are authentically fractious and loving, and it’s a nice touch that for all her rapidly gained experience, she never works out why Krissi is so much more interested in hearing about her boyfriends than in finding a girl of his own.
Outside the family, other characters are less fully realized: Her first crush, an alcoholic singer, is a flat projection of the lover/teacher/father she’s yearning for. She eats up his theorizing about class, but her own tumbling voice is more powerful in conveying the impact of growing up poor.
Moran’s other bigger story is a feminist coming-of-age tale, about how a girl like Johanna fares when she has to go out into the world, into rooms full of men, where her body is judged before her brain.
Once she’s past the wonder of kissing, sex is disappointing, and she’s left, again, to pleasure herself while a boy sleeps, oblivious, at her side.
But for all her humiliations — and there are plenty — Johanna is an irrepressible narrator, telling a mostly-true and funny tale of survival and success.
It’s hard not to wish her well, bad decisions, top hat and all.
Scutts is a freelance writer and board member of the National Book Critics Circle.