Review: Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

I really enjoyed this story about a week in the life of a young woman in Northern Ireland.  Majella is in her mid-twenties and lives with her mother in the very small fictional town of Aghybogey during the time of “The Troubles”.  Her day to day life is ordinary – she cares for her mother and works night at a chip shop.  It’s also not so ordinary — her uncle was blown up by a faulty bomb, her father disappeared, and now her grandmother’s been murdered.

In the same way, Majella herself is anything but ordinary.  She’s on the autism spectrum, although no one in the story talks about that. She’s also highly opinionated about the things – and people – she likes and dislikes.  She’s clever and courageous and uninhibited, but also a bit aimless.  She takes care of people who are worse off than she is, like her mother, but she also runs when she encounters the woman in the town who has every type of cancer. There’s so much grief in her life, yet she still sees her life with a lot of humor.  All of these contradictions were what made this book such a pleasure to read. 

There was so much I loved about Majella – and at the same time I wanted so much more for her.  She’s not quite an adult (and maybe that’s typical of her generation) although she works hard and is fairly patient with her demanding, alcoholic mother.  I wanted her to have more ambition, or at least plans for her future, but she seems happy working at the chip shop (called “A Salt and Battered”, a name so bad it’s good) and dealing with the local characters in the town. 

While not very much happens in this book, I felt like we gradually got to know Majella’s family over the course of the book. I was struck by the last interaction Majella had with her grandmother, and how she felt guilty because at the time she was anxious to get out of there. It was clear Majella cared about her grandmother and made a real effort to visit her.

I’m not sure if this book will work for everyone, because Majella’s day to day life is pretty routine and she spends a lot of time working in the chip shop. This was one of the things I loved about this book. I spent many years working in fast food, and have many happy memories of the people and the work, however greasy and grueling it was.  I loved it, and like Majella, I took pride in doing a good job even if others found it demeaning.  A good part of who I am came from that experience, and I totally get that with this book.  It might seem routine and boring but it brought back fond memories for me. 

I liked the way the author used repetition throughout the book to highlight the routines in Majella’s life.  For example, there’s one customer who comes in each day and makes the same bad joke.  The author gives us a list of things Majella likes and dislikes, and those things are repeated throughout the novel.  Majella herself grows as a character throughout the book, just in fairly small increments. 

Like Shuggie Bain, this is a book for readers who like immersing themselves in dialect.  That’s exactly the kind of book I enjoy, even though it is more work to understand what’s going on, and I probably missed a lot.  I imagine this book is very different depending on whether you read it (there’s a glossary) or listen to the audiobook (narrated by Nicola Coughlan of Derry Girls and Bridgerton).  I listened to it, and thought the narrator was fantastic even though it wasn’t always easy to understand.  Coughlan was particularly good at differentiating the voices of Majella’s friends and her mother. 

I might have liked more from the ending, but mostly I was just sad that my time with Majella ended.  I recommend it for readers who like books with more character study than plot, enjoy reading or listening to dialect, and want to get a better sense of the history of Northern Ireland.

  4 comments for “Review: Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

  1. March 28, 2021 at 4:39 pm

    Sounds like an intriguing novel. I like the setting and premise, though what you describe could end up being tedious. I think I could like this if I’m in the right mood, and audio may definitely be the way to go so that I can’t be tempted to skim the repetitive bits but get the full experience.

    • March 31, 2021 at 8:47 am

      I’m sure this book won’t work for everyone – I think it will depend very much whether you like the character. I did enjoy the audio and thought Coughlan really brought the character to life.

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