Arts

Fiction that is smart, funny, and moving

HOW TO BUILD A GIRL

By Caitlin Moran

Harper, 352 pp., $26.99

The first page of Caitlin Moran’s “How to Build a Girl” is a sort of tough-chick mask, like multiple piercings or scary tattoos. If you’re game to get past the initial image — 14-year-old Johanna determinedly masturbating as her 6-year-old brother sleeps beside her — then welcome: A smart, splendid, laugh-out-loud-funny novel awaits. It doesn’t want to bare its soft, compassionate heart to just anyone.

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Moran, who grew up poor in England’s Midlands, fell in love with music, and wrote her way to a different life, has created a character along those lines: awkward, lonely Johanna, an autodidact who remakes her mind with help from the local library. At 16, in 1992, she gets a glamorous gig as a critic for a London music magazine, and her path is clear. Which is not to say uncluttered. “How to Build a Girl” is about how Johanna begins to become the person she needs to be, living a life she chooses. “I want to be the creator of me,” she vows. “I’m gonna begat myself.”

A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING

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By Eimear McBride

Coffee House, 227 pp., $24

The story comes at us in bits and shards, the speech as shattered as the siblings at the center of Irish novelist Eimear McBride’s audacious, brutal, bracingly jagged-edged debut, “A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing.”

“For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.”

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That’s a conversation between mother and son, reconstructed by a girl not then born. Our narrator is the sister the boy gets to name — a treat for a sick child whose surgery looms, a tumor rooted in his head.

Neither style nor subject matter is easy in this novel, about a family smothering in secrets and violence, denial and devotion. The boy will have brain damage; the girl will carry her own deep wounds. In a mangled rebellion shaped by their mother’s ferocious Catholicism and a relative’s sexual predation, mortification of the flesh will become the girl’s path to numbness and atonement, as well as a tool of her self-loathing.

Violence and tenderness coexist here; love is imperfect but tenacious. Grown up, badly messed up, the girl does her brother a painful kindness, and with it comes a flicker of hope: “I might be a person,” she says. “Beneath the. Where horrible can be a good act of contrition.”

MAN V. NATURE

By Diane Cook

Harper, 272 pp., $25.99

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Here’s a good rule: If Diane Cook wrote it, read it.

Safety is tenuous, if not an illusion, in her thoughtful, unsettling, and darkly funny collection, “Man V. Nature.” In “Somebody’s Baby,” small children are snatched away the moment their mothers make a mistake. In “Moving On,” young widows are taken to shelters, where they are reprogrammed and offered up to be chosen by new men.

Even the privileged — executives pursued by a bloodthirsty beast in “It’s Coming”; a one-percenter who watches from high ground as his neighbors drown in “The Way the End of Days Should Be” — may succumb. Danger lurks on the other side of the door. Best of luck to anyone who opens it or steps outside.

DIARY OF THE FALL

By Michel Laub

Translated, from the Portuguese, by Margaret Jull Costa

Other, 240 pp., $20

At his 13th-birthday party, the only Catholic boy at a Jewish school is badly injured in a fall — a calibrated cruelty by his classmates. Michel Laub’s finely wrought “Diary of the Fall” traces the moral awakening of one of the perpetrators, the grandson of an Auschwitz survivor. Confronting the cycle of retribution, the problem of memory, and the legacy of pain handed down through generations, it insists that suffering, whether historical or personal, is not an alibi.

DE POTTER’S GRAND TOUR

By Joanna Scott

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pp., illustrated, $26

In Joanna Scott’s “De Potter’s Grand Tour,” a charming European comes to America in the late 1800s, marries a lovely young woman, and makes a globetrotting life with her, only to disappear in 1905, leaving behind financial disaster and a web of lies. Scott built the novel from family stories and documents, and it can feel more transcribed than imagined. But she’s written a winsome, heartbroken heroine, and the mystery that’s befallen her pulls us along.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.