Dolly Wilde is a self-assured music critic, with great poise and wit, an imposing figure in black, at times sporting a dramatic veil or top hat to distinguish her from the rabble of Wolverhampton. That she is 14 year old Johanna Morrigan’s alter-ego is no matter; Dolly Wilde has discovered the music of the early 90s and is determined to leave behind her council estate and seek her fate in London. Johanna believes that her new found identity will propel her into the hearts and minds of like-minded people; people who, like her, are misunderstood intellectuals with hearts of gold.
Until she gets her date with destiny (or a boy, any boy) Johanna must bide her time by looking after her younger siblings without getting under the feet of her persnickety brother Krissi, endure the ridicule of classmates after a disastrous appearance on local telly, put up with her father’s continued, drunken attempts to become a pop star and convince her mother that leaving school to pursue a career in writing is the best idea anyone has ever had.
Caitlin Moran is a seasoned writer, who like Johanna, started her career as a precocious teenager in music magazine Melody Maker. In recent years she has carved out a reputation as an outspoken feminist and champion of women’s issues, gaining admirers by being unapologetic about being a woman and appreciating every apart of it, while winning over skeptics with her wry humour and no nonsense attitude. Her first book How to Be a Woman was a smash hit memoir, and How to Build a Girl, her first novel, is facing the same amount of acclaim. I would love to have read this book when I was on the cusp of adulthood, which is the target audience for this funny, touching and frequently hilarious account of a girl’s bumpy attempt to find her place in the world. Moran gets the tribulations of awkward adolescence down perfectly and puts into words beautifully all the disgusting, heartbreaking, self-conscious, know-it-all facets of pubescent life. Reading from the perspective of someone who has come out the other side of it and is approaching a ‘significant’ birthday makes me so very happy that that awful time is over and done with while at the same time slightly nostalgic for all the growing pains that start to form a person as an adult. Pains they are but the scars they leave behind shape you into the adult you live with for the rest of your life.
Moran’s heroine is racked with insecurity and doubt while at the same time being assured that she is the next in line to change the world. She’s loathe to let anyone see her reactions to experiencing anything new, preferring them to believe that she’s already as seasoned as a septuagenarian at life. It’s all achingly familiar but intensely personal, bringing back into focus the horror and hope of a life on the cusp of change. Moran has created a very real character, and the journey you take with her will have you laughing, cringing and wiping away a tear or two. Dolly Wilde may represent the outcome of the journey, but we all retain a little Johanna Morrigan inside.
– Aoife B. Burke
First published in The Tuam Herald on 13.08.14