Victoria’s Book Reviews: Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

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Now, any book that frames itself as “Milkman meets Derry Girls” is always going to pique my interest. After all, I loved Milkman – that fabulous Anna Burns prize-winner about an awkward young woman’s coming of age in war torn Northern Ireland – and who the hell doesn’t love Derry Girls, that exquisite sitcom about schoolgirls growing up in Derry, Northern Ireland, in the 1990s?

So, how does this debut from Michelle match up to that great expectation?? You know what, pretty damn well.

Not that you’d think that from the first 100 pages, mind, as the first half of this book is hard going, in that it is tough to find an in and difficult to discern a narrative drive or plot.

We are in the hands of Majella, a profoundly introverted young woman whose life is defined by predictable routine – her care responsibilities at home for her alcoholic, pill-popping mother and her six days a week job at the fish & chop shop, Salt & battered!

At first glance, nothing else seems to impact this bubble – the Prods and the Catholics get into fights around her, the British are loathed, and poverty and hopelessness is implicit and endemic. Yet all of Majella’s focus is on her routine. For pages and pages, we are following her getting to work, wiggling herself into her uniform (a little tight), casual sex with the boss (he’s married), coming home late with her fish supper (eaten alone), all whilst avoiding any in-depth communication with her mother.

It is these pages that have broken many readers; you will see on Goodreads quite a few ‘did not finish’ and complaints about boredom. And you do wonder what the hell this is all for. But then, as you concentrate, tiny fragments of information burst through the monotony – Majella’s father is missing, part of the Disappeared, her uncle dies in a bomb explosion, and her Granny was murdered at home. Majella doesn’t seem to focus on these parts of her life so their sudden arrival into her thoughts – and their equally quick dismissal – deliberately jar in the cleverest of ways.

Majella is ignoring this information because she is focused wholly on her routine – a reflection that, much like Milkman, this protagonist may be on the autistic spectrum. But these seemingly peripheral events are going to change her life forever. And the steady (then sudden) fallout from all of this is what shapes and makes for a terrific second half.

Yet, as I reflected on the book, re-reading parts of the first half, I realised that there was so much more craft here than I had appreciated the first time I read through. Take for example, all the chapter intros that extract a number from Majella’s well-maintained lists of things she likes and things she doesn’t…

“5.55pm. Item 3: Pain: Other people’s pain.” Then you will read that following section, likely to be a scene in the chip shop when some annoying customers come in and try engaging our anti-hero in some chit-chat. It may slip your mind that pain is Majella’s focus; in fact, you’re not sure if another person’s pain is referred to at all in the scene you’ve just witnessed. But then you read it again – carefully – and that scene changes. There is pain there; not on the surface, not obvious, but it is there. And suddenly this book reveals a rich world of hidden depths to this community and its characters that could so easily be overlooked.

A hugely rewarding read and a world that I am so keen to return to again as soon as I can.

 

Big Girl, Small Town is published by John Murray Press; hardback RRP £14.99.

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