Why couldn’t Caitlin Moran have written this book ten years ago?!! The benefits I would have gained from reading this as a sixteen year old (not necessarily sex tips, but psychological benefits) are mind-blowing.
Fat, fourteen year old, billy-no-mates Johanna Morrigan tells her story of life on a Wolverhampton housing estate with her rockstar wannabe dad, postnatally depressed mum (after the unexpected twins) and brothers Krissi and Lupin, whom she loves very much but who don’t give much love in return. It’s 1990 and Thatcher has just been ousted from government (much to the entire housing estate’s approval) but life is pretty tough for Johanna. She’s not popular, she wants a boyfriend and she loves music, like many other teenage girls, but when her family is threatened with a cut in benefits – which she is convinced is her fault – she makes the decision to kill herself. In actual fact she just wants to kill the old, annoying Johanna and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde.
She writes and writes and writes all the time, reviewing her favourite music and sending them in to various music publications, and eventually finds herself earning a fairly decent weekly wage, for a fourteen-year-old.
Feigning confidence and sexual promiscuity, she finally gets her first kiss aged seventeen, and very quickly falls into a cycle of shagging men, not really properly enjoying it but thinking it’s ok because at least the bloke liked it, and then having to finish herself off afterwards. She takes sexual advice from strange men in clubs and applies them to her sexual encounters with varying, although mostly negative, results.
The characterisation is wonderful, and I love the fact that even though she’s pretty much in love with a cockney geeza named John Kite, the relationship is very much plutonic, and the incredible rapport they build together makes up for the meaningless, emotionless sex she has with idiotic characters like Tony Rich and Big Cock Al.
Some of the musical references were lost on me (having been born right at the end of ’89, and the book being set late 80s, early 90s) but I understood completely how music can totally change and influence how adolescents come to understand their world. I had a similar fan-girl love for Muse and Queens of the Stone Age which I still carry with me to this day. Not all teens are obsessed with music, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s a major part of growing up and figuring out who you are, and Dolly Wilde essentially builds her entire life around the music she loves and the music she reviews scathingly in D&ME magazine.
I’d say the book is like a how-not-to-build-a-girl manual. Except for the fact that the story arc takes us through all the shitty, gritty awfulness that comes with the territory of adolescence. Chapter twenty-four contains the epiphanic denouement, where all the wisdom Johanna has learnt from her many mistakes melds itself together and she realises what life is about. If I had read this book as a teenager I would have ripped it out of the book and stuck it on my wall and memorised it by heart as a motivational mantra for when times get tough.
“So what do you do when you build yourself – only to realise you built yourself with the wrong things?
You rip it up and start again. That is the work of your teenage years – to build up and tear down and build up again, over and over, endlessly …”
Other little snippets made my inner-feminist particularly happy:
“For in a way that feels quite unfair, the only way I can gain any qualifications at this thing – sex – that is seen as so societally important and desirable, is by being a massive slag, which is not seen as societally important and desirable. This often makes me furious”
“All my life, I’ve thought that if I couldn’t say anything boys found interesting, I might as well shut up. But now I realise there was that whole other, invisible half of the world – girls – that I could speak to, instead. A whole other half equally silent and frustrated, and just waiting to be given the smallest starting-signal – the tiniest starter-culture – and they would explode into words, and song, and action, and relieved, euphoric cries of “Me too! I feel this too!”
Which is exactly how I felt when I joined a feminist group. Caitlin Moran is a feminist and it is noticeable by the way she writes Johanna’s story with such passion and ferociousness, particularly in regards to Johanna’s sexuality.
Pages 167-168 contain a wonderful fictitious interview with John Kite about the differences between rich and poor. It was these pages that showed just how passionate Caitlin Moran is about the issue of UK poverty, about politics, about life on benefits.
As a work of rebellious fiction, this has all the ingredients of a fantastic, fun read – biting humour, a loveable, although misguided, angsty teen protagonist, a great family, lots of sex and all the sights and sounds of “LANDAN”, and although in places the plot is a little thin, it’s never boring, there aren’t any parts of it that I thought were lacking, and I just really, seriously enjoyed it. And most of the people on my Saturday bus journey to work think I enjoyed it too. Oh, how it made me guffaw!
I’d recommend this to anyone, seriously, anyone. As long as you’ve got a sense of humour and aren’t sexually repressed. (Or maybe those people need to read it even more? LOL!)