Big Girl, Small Town
By Michelle Gallen
Algonquin. 311 pp. $16.95
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This year’s publishing season is over. The important, noisy novels have all been released. The prizes have been awarded. The list of Best Books for 2020 has been posted.
But hold the door!
Make room for this late arrival from Dublin: an immensely lovable debut novel by Michelle Gallen called “Big Girl, Small Town.”
I read most of Gallen’s mournful comedy aloud to my wife, and even with my mangled Irish brogue, we loved it. (Alas, I discovered too late the book’s online glossary, which would have helped me swear with these earthly characters.) But you don’t need me: Just listen to the audiobook of “Big Girl, Small Town” narrated by Nicola Coughlan, the comic genius who co-stars in the sitcom “Derry Girls.”
The “small town” in question is Aghybogey, a fictional village in Northern Ireland soggy with hopelessness. The “big girl” is Majella, a 27-year-old woman living with her alcoholic mom and trying to make sense of the world. That’s not easy under the best circumstances, and Aghybogey doesn’t come close to the best. A few years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, it’s still strictly segregated between Catholics and Protestants and stuck in an economic slough so old it’s covered in mold. Somehow, the much rumored peace dividend never reached here. Its citizens, mostly unemployed, frequently drunk, carry on their lives in the reverberating echoes of the Troubles.
Majella wants none of that nor any of the petty whispers of village life. “She liked things straight,” Gallen writes. “But things weren’t like that in Aghybogey.” Small talk and gossip lead the list of “stuff in her head that she wasn’t keen on.” No. 5 is “scented stuff.” No. 8 is “Jokes.” In fact, “sometimes Majella thought that she should condense her whole list of things she wasn’t keen on into a single item: Other People.”
But rather than condensing her list, “Big Girl, Small Town” is presented as an elaborate annotation of that list. Each brief section is precisely labeled as Majella moves through the activities of her week. E.g. “4:04 p.m. Item 12.2: Conversation: Rhetorical questions.”
The listicle structure is surprisingly expansive in Gallen’s hands. What at first feels artificial to us gradually proves its function as Majella’s effort to systematize the chaos swirling around her. The word “autism” never appears in these pages, but Majella craves routines, enjoys repetitive actions and finds social situations awkward.
Those are challenges Gallen understands and presents here without a shred of exoticism or sentimentality. In her early 20s, after a brilliant academic career, Gallen was diagnosed with encephalitis, which left her with brain damage. She recovered, but she is not neurotypical. She has trouble with loud sounds and strong smells. Social interactions can be challenging. “Big Girl, Small Town” is not autobiographical, but it’s clearly informed by Gallen’s experience as a young woman who grew up in Northern Ireland and who processes the world differently.
That insight combined with Gallen’s dark wit make this novel an entryway into the life of a wholly original young woman: gruff but kindhearted, irritated but long-suffering, resigned to feeling different in a realm of eccentrics. The surface of Majella’s experience may be an endless cycle of repeated actions — bring mum tea, re-watch “Dallas,” clean the kitchen — but there are subterranean shifts taking place. If this small town can’t change, maybe this big girl will have to. But how?
For Majella, work is salvation from disorder. Every night, she’s down at the chip shop, A Salt and Battered!, asking, “What can ah get chew?” The menu of fried food provides the basis for a predictable script, a handy way to sidestep the riddles of spontaneous conversation as she greets her regular customers.
And what a Joycean parade of characters they are! Wee Róisín Murphy has no idea her sister is actually her mum. Hairy Feely, the town’s only recovered alcoholic, is a warning against the dreariness of a dry life. And Jimmy Nine Pints propositions Majella with the same crude joke every single night.
They’re all hilariously odd and desperately tragic — the razor’s edge on which “Big Girl, Small Town” is balanced. Because behind the persistent comedy of this quirky village, the ground is damp with blood. Years ago, Majella’s uncle blew himself up while making a bomb. Her despondent father disappeared. And now her grandmother has been beaten to death. Everyone in town is conversant with these calamities, the figures involved and the attendant risks of speaking to the police. Majella finds herself constantly contending with cloying expressions of sympathy she doesn’t want. The steady routine at A Salt and Battered! – repeated by Gallen in a kind of breaded poetry — offers Majella the refuge of monotony. Confronted by another nosy gossip, all she has to say is, “What can ah get chew?”
But if Majella’s spoken range is curtailed, her interior range is vast and illuminated by a prose style at once accessible and stippled with strangeness. There are so many scenes — Majella sitting in her late grandmother’s farmhouse, having sex in the storeroom or recalling a batch of drowned kittens — that feel like literary alchemy. Again and again, with the raw elements of this cramped life, Gallen manages to evoke in us a wave of complex feelings. It’s the kind of magic you’ll feel lucky to find.