“She never said no to a shag.”
Michelle Gallen’s debut novel, Big Girl, Little Town centres on the life of twenty-something Majella O’Neill. Majella (Jelly to some) lives with her toxic, heavily medicated and frequently drunk mother in a small Irish border town, and works in the local chip shop. Not exactly an exciting life, and it’s a life shaped by blurry events: a grandfather who “died after getting a hiding in internment,” an absent father who disappeared years ago, an IRA member uncle, who died while planting a bomb, and the latest: Majella’s grandmother bludgeoned to death. How much tragedy and violence can one life sustain?
Majella’s life is, on one level, a joyless grind. She gets up, deals with her mother, goes to work at A Salt and Battered, serves a motley assortment of customers–most of whom have colourful nicknames, and occasionally has sweaty sex with her married co-worker. For R&R, there’s Dallas reruns and food (greasy chips and toast). More Dallas reruns and more food. Majella’s personal life isn’t exactly messy; it could be described as bleak and barren. Consequently, Majella lives a mostly interior life and perhaps that’s why she keeps a “list of stuff in her head that she wasn’t keen on.”
1) Small talk, bullshit and gossip
2) Physical contact
4) Bright lights
5) Scented stuff
The full list of things Majella wasn’t keen on extended to ninety-seven items, with subcategories for each item.
Majella’s list-keeping seems in opposition to her character. She isn’t a particularly organized or self-disciplined person, but the list keeping is arguably a way of maintaining order in the midst of chaos. This theory seems to be borne out by the way she sticks to her routines, hates to be late and has a mania for cleaning the fish and chip shop.
Majella squished a chip into her garlic mayonnaise and then rammed it into her mouth. She debated getting up to check on her ma. She remembered what J.R. Ewing did when he found Sue-Ellen in a similar state. he simply left her to her own fate, assigning her to the care of the good Lord above.
What makes Big Girl, Small Town so interesting is yes this is an ordinary life–so ordinary, narrow and confining that it’s easy to imagine living like this. At the same time in spite of the ordinary and mundane, there are serious events: the tiny town of Aghbogey is a place where everyone knows everyone else (and that includes all the private business you’d like to keep that way). Yet Aghbogey, a place where really nothing much should happen, is a place fraught with tragedy. It’s a town that cannot deny its turbulent Northern Ireland border location. Majella, while leading an unenviable life in its mind-numbing banality (a 9-year long career in a chip shop with no end in sight) is forced to cope with events that most of us are lucky enough to avoid.
Throughout her childhood, the local news had been a litany of deaths, explosions and murders attempts. Things only got worse after peace broke out.
We see Majella’s life: the way she eats to fill the void in her life, the way she handles the customers, including the bingo crowd, the late night pub goers, the worn-out, tired women on the game, Jake the Snake Connolly, Cabbage McAteer, Jimmy Nine Pints, the way she manages her mother, and the ways in which she has learned to cope. Majella, author Michelle Gallen’s very human creation, is full of contradictions: sensitive but she’s learned to blunt her emotions. There’s the sense that under different circumstances. Majella could be a larger-than-life personality, someone with an active social life, but instead she minds her own business and keeps her thoughts to herself.
For non English speakers, the book may be a challenge. A small amount of the text is written in local dialect. It is not throughout the entire book but appears now and then. It’s written in such a way it’s easy to translate for the native speaker (not as tough as Scottish dialect IMO). Not sure how this would be for the non-native speaker.
Gay uz a bagga chipz anna tubba garlick mayo Jelly
Am ah standing here talking tae myself? Am ah just some eejit wasting her breath talking til her daughter’s door?
Refreshing in its honest portrayal of a non spectacular life lived with the harnessing of emotions that Majella cannot afford, Big Girl, Small Town is a below-the-radar examination of the effects of decades of violence on an ordinary girl. Surrounded by violence and intolerance, both accepted as the normal state of affairs, and with Dallas as a moral guide, Marjella still views life with a black sense of humour.
- Triggers. Includes a scene of kittens drowning and a pap smear.