Book review: Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen
Big Girl Small Town - Michelle Gallen
Michelle Gallen's Big Girl, Small Town is being promoted as Milkman meets Derry Girls, setting up expectations that Michelle Gallen's debut novel almost certainly cannot hope to meet. Inevitably, even though it opens with a quote from Anna Burns's extraordinary work, it doesn't measure up to the literary merits and philosophical insights of Milkman's view of living in a world shaped by the inescapable stranglehold of the twin authoritarian influence of religious observance and paramilitary terror, nor does it have quite the humorous exaggeration of the same conditions of Derry Girls. And yet in its own way, and from a Northern Irish small town perspective, Big Girl, Small Town is another small masterpiece that draws from that wealth of observations to be made about ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances.
It seems a little bit of a familiar literary contrivance use a character with some minor level of autism who is unable to comprehend all the subtleties insinuations and social conventions as a way of emphasising the absurdities of the world around her, but Majella O'Neill turns out to be an extraordinary character. Her perspective is perfect for the purposes of providing the deeper insights that Gallen reveals about life in a small provincial Northern Ireland. Majella is not there to provide an easy way in for outsiders, the work remaining resolutely true to language and behaviours that will seems bizarre to anyone outside of the province, and yet Majella's experiences relate to a very recognisable universal condition.
27 year-old Majella 'Jelly' O'Neill lives in the small town of Aghybogey in Co. Tyrone, a town with a distinct Catholic/Protestant (Taig/Prod) divide right on the border with Co. Donegal in Ireland. Although she's bright and intelligent, she doesn't cope well in most social situations, not that there are any great opportunities for a better life in somewhere like Aghybogey. Majella works in a chippy, taking orders and serving the regulars, exchanging well-rehearsed small talk that she has learned to make dealing with the public easier. Her father, a former IRA activist has 'disappeared' and Majella has to cope with an alcoholic mother addicted to prescription drugs.
Life in Aghybogey is as tedious and miserable as it sounds and Michelle Gallen doesn't try to brighten it up in any way, instead describing the minutiae and poverty of the existence of a large overweight girl lacking in social skills in excruciating and sometimes graphic detail. In terms of plot there's not a lot else going on here other than repetitive sequences of taking chippy orders, with the circumstance of Majella's grandmother dying after someone beat the old woman living alone in her caravan home, being the only event of note that gives the locals something to talk about. Not only does it provide gossip over who might be responsible, it also brings unwelcome attentions of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PissNI) to Majella's door.
if that sounds unappealing, Gallen's observations are however brilliantly accurate, the dialogue and the experiences utterly authentic (and potentially baffling to anyone outside Northern Ireland), but there's a dark humour that arises out of it, and a universal quality that makes it impossible not to feel deeply for the almost heartbreakingly sad situation and potential trajectory of Majella's life. But Gallen's book isn't looking for sympathies and despite the plain descriptiveness and the deceptive paucity of drama, the repetition, the chippy orders, the small talk and what it reveals about small town life takes on a form of its own. It has an almost Beckett-like quality; a meditation on the ritualistic behaviours that strive to impose some kind of order or meaning over the futility of existence, with a healthy dose of absurdist humour thrown in. Absurdist that is as in completely realistic and true to life in small town Northern Ireland.
After the success of Milkman's Booker Prize win last year, it seems incredible that another work from Northern Ireland could explore the undercurrents of another aspect of life in the province in such an insightful and involving manner. Big Girl, Small Town is no copycat however, no cash-in looking for the next Anna Burns or Derry Girls, but is seemingly part of a new golden age of post-conflict reflection on the world that has shaped the province, and it's equally as impressive. Michelle Gallen finds her own voice in Majella O'Neill, finds a unique expression and observation of the absurdities of everyday life, and the big girl in the small town might be more likely to work her way under your skin and leave an even deeper impression.