Claire's Reviews > Big Girl, Small Town

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen
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really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, irish-literature, around-the-world-2020, around-the-world

I liked the idea of reading a Northern Irish novel that used more of the phonetic vernacular, as was the case in reading Milkman.

Long ago, when visiting there, I bought a slim volume on some of the words used in the North, however being outside of the context of a story or novel they made little sense and in the course of travelling, there wasn't enough exposure to it to hear or understand it. This novel seemed like a perfect opportunity to rectify that. I got so into it, I started writing to a friend about weans and oul wans an shite. She thought I was typing too fast and had not used spellcheck.

Big Girl, Small Town is a week in the life of 27 year old Majella who from the opening page we learn has a list of stuff in her head she isn't keen on, a Top Ten that hasn't changed in seven years and those 10 have subcategory's. The list of things she does see the point in, is much shorter and includes the American TV series Dallas (except for the 1985-86 season).

She lives with her mother in a fictional border town, her father having disappeared years before, presumed not to be living, though no one knows for sure. They have just heard of her 85 year old Granny's death, suspected as murder.

Each chapter begins with a time of day and an item from the list, such as:
4.04 p.m.
Item 12.2 Conversation: Rhetorical questions

and the story is narrated through her regular, unchangeable routine and manifestations of these things that she encounters, like her mother's rhetorical question.
Majella? D'ye not have work tae go til this evening? Majella had work to go to, just as she had done every Monday for the past nine years. and Majella knew that her Ma knew that, because her work schedule and weekly Mass were the only routines their lives revolved around.

Majella works in a local fish and chip shop with her colleague Marty, and each evening we meet a number of local characters, encountering item 3.3 Noise: Shutters in work; item 3.4: Noise: Shite singing; item 1: Small talk, bullshit and gossip; item 8.4: Jokes: Repeated jokes.

There's routine and repetition and though it may seem uninteresting to follow her in this, even the mundane chip counter conversations and orders I enjoy immensely, triggering as they do, a humorous encounter of our own, in a chip shop in Newcastle Northern Ireland in Oct 2019.

I now know having finished the book, why the man at the chip shop looked aghast at my son (raised in the French culture), when he responded to his question 'Do you wan sauce on it?' with "Yes please, Mustard". Which was after my son had looked at me saying, "I can't understand what he's saying," when the man had asked him after he'd ordered a chicken burger, 'Wud ya like it S'thrn fried or Batterer'd? I said I'm not going to explain what battered is, just take Southern Fried. Who'd have thought a chip shop could provide such an entertaining cross-cultural experience.

In Majella's shop too, no one ever asks for mustard. Some of them ask for things that go beyond the boundaries of pleasantries, the banter like an old record on repeat. Majella is clearly intelligent but hasn't been in an environment that has encouraged that, instead she has found a role that suits her character (in a town with the highest unemployment rate in the country) and despite everything, it is clear she is unlikely to become trapped by the same vices that capture most who've given up on their dreams.

The author Michelle Gallen - who grew up in the most bombed small town in Europe post-WWII and went to school in an area with the highest unemployment rate in the industrially developed world - when interviewed, said of her motivation:
"I wrote Big Girl Small Town to shine a spotlight on the consequences of the British-Irish border on a family in a deeply divided community over decades of peace and ruthless violence. It tells the story from the dark heart of the community, revealing the human growth and resilience of a proudly ungovernable community on the very edge of Britain."

She also admits that Majella might be happier if she'd watched less Dallas and read more books, but she was aware of the lessons of that Machiavellian J.R. Ewing even if she'd never used them and while most probably only saw what she was on the outside, beneath it all she was totally in charge of herself and about to become even more empowered than she had ever been.

Asked how she thought Majella would have coped with corona virus, she said:
“I think that while Majella would welcome the social distancing aspect of managing Covid-19, she would – like most people – be intensely worried for the virus's effect on those who are vulnerable: the sick, the infirm and the elderly."

And on what she might comfort in reading:
"She would find a kindred soul in the narrator of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. She'd have a real laugh reading Lisa McInerney's The Glorious Heresies. And I can see her finding comfort in the lovely Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession.” Michelle Gallen
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Reading Progress

May 18, 2020 – Shelved
May 18, 2020 – Shelved as: to-read
May 18, 2020 – Shelved as: fiction
May 18, 2020 – Shelved as: irish-literature
May 24, 2020 – Started Reading
May 24, 2020 –
21.0% "Settling into the rhythm of the dialect and the routine of Majella, feels a little like Eleanor Oliphant and Milkman."
May 24, 2020 –
37.0% "Sick of her toes peeking out, a significant change in the routine when Majella withdraws £80 from her bank account to buy a new duvet, disturbed when the cashier expresses condolences at her granny's brutal murder.
NOt much veers from the routine, tea, toast with jam, watching Dallas reruns (for her Mum its Oprah), shifts at the chippy, regular clients & her workmate who thrives on gossip & the occasional infidelity."
May 24, 2020 –
74.0% "A surprise turn of events. Repercussions.
Majella is a survivor, underestimated, except by her granny.
Impossible to avoid the gossip, surrounded by it, the subject of it, drawn into revealing.
An only child, but an astute one."
May 24, 2020 – Shelved as: around-the-world-2020
May 24, 2020 – Shelved as: around-the-world
May 25, 2020 – Finished Reading

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