I wanted to read something light and funny as a break from all of the subject area research I’ve been doing lately and I was not disappointed with Caitlin Moran’s novel How to Build a Girl. Set in the early 1990’s in a small town still within the reach of London’s shadow, Johanna Morrigan is a 14 year old girl who’s upbringing by her wanna-be rock star father and push-over mother has taught her to be audacious in the face of their poverty rather than docile. Following an extremely embarrassing interview televised across England, Johanna decides to reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde and over the next two years we follow her around as she learns the ropes of the burgeoning indie-rock music scene.
While they may lack the trappings of respectability, Dolly’s home life abounds in encouragement from her mother and father. Her father was injured while working as a union carpenter and supplements his government dole through off jobs and marketing on behalf of his band – which by all accounts had not chance of becoming fmous. While he’s clearly an alcoholic whose lack of present potential for success in the life leads him to fixate on previous accolades he’d been given as a local musician, Dolly’s recognition of this is never tragic, but more melancholic. She wants to help him, but also recognizes there’s only so much she can do.
From the get go there’s something inexplicably charming about Dolly/Johanna. I think part of it is that when I was a teenager I too knew a few girls that reminded me of her. Whether or not they consciously chose to adopt the trappings of a more accepting sub-cultural, goth, as a means of coping with their non-Hollywood bodily development is debatable. What isn’t is that this suddenly gives her some cultural cachet that provides her with easy entry into a number of spaces otherwise prohibited to her – be it music review magazine offices or bars that host concerts. After her reinvention Johanna at first does not yet have the confidence in order to project herself as a sexual object into the minds of those that she desires. As Dolly, however, a “lady sex adventurer”, she throws caution to the wind and after a few drunken missteps seems to gain a greater level of confidence. Whether or not this is genuine is brought up by her boozing, cigarettes smoking and other outrageous behavior that seems to mask her own withering, intermittent insecurity. Dolly is not alone, however, in this as many in her family and in her work life also contain this recognition of the precariousness of their existence and this seems to alternately motivate and depress them. A semi-famous musician that Dolly becomes infatuated with, for instance, that is a model of the charming and self-destructive musician trope.
Morrigan writes a number of scenes that both highlight her self-creation and the “flaws” in her autopoiesis. I found the scene wherein she plasters images of her heroes on the wall in a large collage in the manner typical of procedural cop shows meant to show criminal conspiracies to be especially amusing as not only do I currently have that in my office right now as help for me to visualize the characters in Unraveling but as when I was her age I had something similar on my walls. Another humorous scene has Dolly hosting a party in the bathroom following a particularly trying ordeal. The chord most often plucked stems from Dolly’s fear of a provincial existence. Her perspective towards her parents is benign, but she also clearly does not want to replicate the life that they lived. She is bourgeoisie in her aspirations, but working class in her character.
Issues of class issues are written well into the novel. There’s the expected verbal abuse by Dolly’s father of Maggie Thatcher and familial concern over the rate of the dole. Beyond that Morrigan does a great job of situating Wilde’s world as one of relative deprivation. Dolly must rely upon state aid not only to live but also to help her find gainful employ. After leaving school to become a full time music reviewer, she first exploits the library to obtain the source of her income before coming to find out that the capitalist music enterprises will give out music for free in hopes of garnishing favorable reviews. The romantic triangle that helps Dolly realize that she needs to reinvent herself, for instance, is compelling not only for it’s keen depiction of the conflicting fantasies of teenagers and also for reinforcing just how many barriers there are to the lower classes becoming upwardly mobile. This sounds overly sociological, but the scene is quite humorous and heartbreaking at the same time. Realizing that affections are not-reciprocated is one type of pain, but when this is compounded by the other facets that Dolly faces her rebirth is all the more inspiring.