A coming of age novel? Or an age of coming novel?

A review of How to Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran. Even before she came across a pleasing reference to herself, Julie Burchill loved this hyperactive novel

5 July 2014

9:00 AM

5 July 2014

9:00 AM

How To Build a Girl Caitlin Moran

Ebury Press, pp.343, £14.99, ISBN: 9780091949006

At a time when feminism is grimly engaged in disappearing up its own intersection (two transsexuals squabbling over a tampon is the image that comes to mind) Caitlin Moran is to be bravo’d till the sacred cows come home for bringing her super-brightness to bear on this most vital of subjects. Like the rest of the western world and its stepdaughters, I loved How To Be a Woman and was excited to see what she would come up with next; when I heard it would be a novel, I was a little underwhelmed, having read her previous attempt at Young Adult fiction, The Chronicles of Narmo.

When I realised in the opening chapter that it was another novel about a big family, I felt very tired; in my experience, people from big families like to believe that we only children go around permanently traumatised from not having had anyone to share our toys with. But in reality, we look at them sadly not out of bitter envy but through sheer molten pity. Who on earth ever wanted to grow up sharing a bedroom in Bedlam?

There’s a lot about masturbation here — as much an age of coming as a coming of age novel — and the ensuing embarrassment which follows from treating oneself as a moveable feast while surrounded by siblings. But once you’ve shaken off these early indicators of a sordid shambles, things get really good. Moran’s writing is frequently magical in its throwaway precision; a man’s tie ‘looks like it has been put on by an enemy’, while kissing ‘is brilliant: I would put it just below telly but definitely above drinking, squeezing blackheads or fairgrounds’.

She writes with breathtaking brio, like a great professional hoofer who has been toe-tapping since tot-hood but has never grown tired of performing: very much a ‘Ta-da! — see what I did there?’ type of writer. Just once in a while it gets a bit more Louie Spence than Ann Miller — the somewhat crazed gagging and gurning over the heroine’s out-of-control sex-drive — but this could be a sign of my advanced age.

Of course, Moran starts with far better raw material than your average entitled Oxbridge hackette. This is, after all, the barely fictionalised story of a brilliant fat girl from a working-class provincial family who becomes a journalistic wunderkind; when a story is so great, why change it? Books about the wonder of working at music papers often tank — think of Tony Parsons’s Stories We Could Tell — as the only people who tend to find the subject interesting are people who get their books for free. But this is so much more, and Moran shows her shining soul — which is even more remarkable than her wit — when she writes about being young, looking for love and the utter vileness of the class system.

Sometimes I couldn’t work out whether this book was aimed at mature adolescents or immature adults, but I loved it anyway — even before I came across the very pleasing mention of myself in Chapter 20, and the even better one in Chapter 24. Moran’s detractors will find lots to loathe here, but as with the criticisms of How To Be a Woman — ranging from ‘nudge-nudge’ to ‘narcissistic’ — such poltroons immediately flag themselves up as humourless, envious ass-hats.

Ignore them; almost every page has something on it which makes you smile, makes you sad or makes you think — often all three at once, in one sentence. How very unusual, and how very Moran; from rock chick to Mother Courage, with her best yet to come.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • will91

    Now if we can get feminists to direct one iota of their attention to the great feminist cause of the 21st century – female genital mutilation and honour killing. That’s a hard task. Feminists will happily talk about the need for more female plumbers or the endemic sexism on university campuses, but they are absolutely silent on issues which involve racial or religious minorities. It’s good to know that feminist’s are more concerned about been labelled Islamophobic, than they are about the plight of a 13 year old girl forced to have her clitoris cut off. My theory is that they’re racist. As they clearly care less about the well-being of muslim women than white women. Then again been a feminist today, all your required to have is an attitude, your not required to do anything, it’s like a bumper sticker which say’s “Save the Whales” you slap it on your Fiat and forget about it. It free’s you of having to do anything.

    • rabbitwithfangs

      Actually there are a lot of feminist organizations that investigate and protest FGM and honour killings. They don’t necessarily have ‘feminist’ in their titles; “Because I Am A Girl”, “The Global Women’s Project” but I guess that ruins your daydream definition of ‘feminism’. You’ve also conveniently ignored all the intersectional groups that are made up of non-white women. Sorry to burst your bubble.

      • Tahitiholiday

        A rather mean-minded response. How about being courteous to a man — whose personal problem it will never be — that cares about the fate of very foreign women? And I am not convinced by your claim that there are ‘lots’ of groups that defend vulnerable womanhood in this way. You named two, and I would have to look up what they actually do.

        • Liz

          He cares enough to tell other people off for not doing more about it.

          • Really Liz? That’s an accurate summation of his comment? I don’t think so.

      • greencoat

        That is true up to a point, but I’ve noticed that these organisations like to infer that dealing with FGM is somehow the responsiblity of our Christian civilisation.
        It’s not – they should go and protest to the Islamic savages to whom FGM is holy writ.

    • greencoat

      Excellent point, but the plural of feminist is feminists – no need for an apostrophe. The apostrophe in your last sentence is also unneccesary.

      • will91

        Haha many thanks.

  • CeeDeLay

    “Just once in a while it gets a bit more Louie Spence than Ann Miller — the somewhat crazed gagging and gurning over the heroine’s out-of-control sex-drive — but this could be a sign of my advanced age.”

    Not Lesbian Bed Death, then.

  • Oh gawd. This is what I get for agreeing to a Disqus follow. Some bint recommending a dreadful end-of-brains libertine work especially because she’s mentioned in it. [headslap]

    • pedestrianblogger

      If the book is only half as badly written as the review it will be unreadable.

      • Kitty MLB

        Maybe it should have remained someone’s imagination, some thoughts are best never to be written down.

        • girondas2

          i am intrigued: Which of your thoughts ought not be written down?
          You can tell Flashman.

          • Rocksy

            Only the banal ones. Which would mean, all of them.

          • girondas2

            Push off creep, Kitty’s ok.

          • Rocksy

            I agree. ‘OK’ covers them perfectly.

      • LOL! : )

    • girondas2

      Ah! Puss I presume
      What larks

      • Yep, hiding out in the Land of Green Ginger, so to speak. (I learned that from James Fenton.)

    • westerby1

      You’ve spelt the name for a female incorrectly, it is W O M A N not B I N T. Not to worry, a lot of people spell woman incorrectly, I have seen: bird, mare, tart, cow, bitch (and MUCH worse) but, I can assure you, it is either woman or girl.

      • girondas2

        I think you’ll find that she knows her woman from her bint and she meant bint.

        • Yes: I learned it from Rod Liddle.

          • girondas2

            Don’t trust Rod on all things.

          • Golly no. He doesn’t like West Ham, for one thing.

          • Kitty MLB

            Well he’s got good taste then.My husband
            supports Arsenal . I much prefer Tennis or
            Cricket myself..maybe they represent

          • girondas2

            He certainly doesn’t – An ok guy but no class. He supports Millwall – c’mon – bullet head and no neck.
            I’ve had a brandy too many, as you can tell – went to the village church for a concert to celebrate Independence Day ( No I can’t figure that either) Our choir and local band were as bad as ever, but we had a ringer! – a professional West End girl with village connections:She had taken pity on us and turned up to give a song or two. I bought her cd (well what else could I do?)
            Look, Swanky/Puss girl, I’m not a naturally sociable kind of guy but I do my best: I’m involved in the Donkey Derby next weekend – I don’t know in what capacity.
            Think on me.

          • Happy Independence Day! It sounds a lovely occasion, and who knows? Her CD might even be good. You ARE a naturally sociable kind of guy, you just find it hard to meet people that are up to it. Your level of interest and engagement with the world, I mean. What the heck is Donkey Derby? Sounds too much fun for words!

          • girondas2

            It was a fine Independence Day – a bevy of songs from Gershwin and our local bigwig parked his 1960’s Oldsmoble Cutlass drop-top in the church yard. Big? You could hold a dinner party in the boot. “you won’t park that at Waitrose” I laughed. “The servants don’t get to use he” He smiled. Touche! (I’m sure he was joking though)
            A Donkey Derby, as I recall from the last time I saw one, consists of donkeys pulling carts round the village green with a young person at the controls. The winner will be the the driver who persaudes their donkey, firstly to run, and secondly to run in the right direction.
            Village life has it’s attractions.

          • Tahitiholiday

            It sure does.

      • The_greyhound

        “I can assure you, it is either woman or girl.”

        The imbecile BBC is trying to forbid “girl”. So bint it will have to be.

  • Kitty MLB

    Ah on this thread we have novels for ‘ coming of age ladies’ fruit yet to be plucked
    by some literary genius who understands the trials of young girls. And on another
    thread we have novels to encourage men who are in ‘ the autumn of their years’
    ( or it might have been late summer) well to encourage them to read again assuming
    they like Nordic gloom.
    Back to this thread, is this ‘ chick lit’ the type that Louise Menche wrote?
    Not my type of books you see. Or is this a younger Jilly Cooper without whips
    and horses. And containing transsexuals moaning about tampons?
    I thought.. Oh never mind.

    • Re: ‘moaning about’: One does wonder how Amelia Earhart coped with those endless flights, especially since her navigator was a man.

      • Kitty MLB

        Indeed. And she trusted a man with the navigation.
        Lucky she wasn’t in a car, as men are renowned
        for getting lost even when using a sat nav.

        • girondas2

          My wife often reads the map upsidedown – it makes more sense to her that way,apparently.
          I trust to instinct – Flashman doesn’t need maps.or sat navs.

          • Kitty MLB

            Well all maps ( even walking maps) need to be read upsidedown.. that makes sense to all women. My husband
            loves his sat nav. Which is why he’s quite lost in my little yellow
            classic car. Flashman just jauntily perambulates everywhere I
            wouldn’t trust him with my car. Its far to small and cosy.
            And you trust instinct do you? you may find feminine intuition
            is far more effective.

          • girondas2

            Oh, I have a lot of time for feminine intuition (eery)
            It’s the reading maps upside down bit that mystifies me.
            As for sat navs: Mine had a sweet feminine voice that repeatedly lead me down bridleways and impassable tracks. I wonder what that was all about.

          • Kitty MLB

            Oh about your little sat nav minx. Notice how she lead you down impassable tracks and
            bridleways, she said :You have reached your
            destination and do a U Turn. An example of
            women leading men astray and changing their
            At least my little yellow classic car doesn’t
            contain such a little temptress who drives men
            around the bend and up the wall.
            Please learn to read maps in the correct upside
            down way…clearly you were not in the boy scouts..or you would know.Admittedly ladies
            instinctively know without that, but thats life.
            P.S I was chucked out of the Brownies for
            reasons….but never mind about those.

          • girondas2

            Well Kitty, we couldn’t have two temptresses in the same little yellow classic car.could we?
            Cue for a Chuck Berry song I think.

          • Kitty MLB

            Two temptresses in a little yellow car sounds
            like a song to me. Maybe not quite like
            Roll over Beethoven. But if you happen to be a
            esoteric bluestocking with a jubilant nature
            you can dance to anything after spending all
            day being somewhat engulfed by the stuffy world of academia.
            Oh, if you want to borrow the yellow car ( named
            Calypso, as in the temptress associated with
            Odysseus) do feel, she loves speeding down
            steep hills.

  • The_greyhound

    Somewhat surprising that women are still trying to write novels. I picked up one of Jane Austen’s (so highly esteemed she has to be on a banknote apparently), and it was frippery and decidedly dull. Probably aimed at middlebrow English lit. types. As with music (ever tried to sit through a symphony written by a woman?) there are somethings that lie well beyond the capabilities of the fairer sex.

    Still, bless her for trying.

    • Kitty MLB

      Clearly you don’t appreciate Jane Austen’s gentle wit and subtle nature
      and the limitations and aspirations of 18th Century England.
      Julian of Norwich said of Jane Austen: A simple creature and unlettyrde.
      And hundreds years later: The most unlearned and ununiformed female who
      dared to be an authoress, uttered Jane Austen to those who read her books.
      Although admittedly I tend to read books by male authors, and poets I have
      nothing against female authors.
      And there is much beyond the capabilities of the more masculine gender
      especially those who are still at the hair dragging stage. Early man may have
      held two sticks in his hands in an attempt to create fire but you can be sure
      a women told him to rub them together.

    • girondas2

      Aw C’mon man.
      Jane was some wicked.chick and probably better company than Will Self (by way of example).

  • Rocksy

    If the author is a ‘she’, I would be surprised.

  • Geoff103

    Caitlin Moran. The most irritating woman ever to be given a newspaper column.

    The ‘I’m so kooky, even I’m irritated by my kookiness’ act is not even worthy of a school magazine, let alone The Times.

  • Trans Fan and Proud

    Sorry (not sorry), couldn’t read past the opening sentence. Down with intersectionality, trans women are freaks, blah, blah, blah. Whatever, Ms Burchill, you haven’t been relevant since your NME days.

  • David Olof Carney

    Julie Burchill is incapable of writing anything that is not insulting and this article has NO intellectual content of any consequence. I am truly amazed at the mysoginistic bollocks that The Spectator manages to publish – it is a sexist rag masquerading as a serious magazine! It is nice to know where all the nutters are though … we can keep an eye on them easily! ….. “do you read The Spectator?” …. ahh! I know what deranged beliefs you have!

  • Cassandra Fox

    Just bought a copy of this, looking forward to reading it. I loved How to Be a Woman – when my little sons are a bit bigger I would love them to read it. It’s funny, accessible feminism. Much more of this sort of thing is needed, I reckon.