Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen.

Routine makes Majella’s world small but change is about to make it a whole lot bigger.

*Stuff Majella knows*
-God doesn’t punish men with baldness for wearing ladies’ knickers
-Banana-flavoured condoms taste the same as nutrition shakes
-Not everyone gets a volley of gunshots over their grave as they are being lowered into the ground

*Stuff Majella doesn’t know*
-That she is autistic
-Why her ma drinks
-Where her da is

Other people find Majella odd. She keeps herself to herself, she doesn’t like gossip and she isn’t interested in knowing her neighbours’ business. But suddenly everyone in the small town in Northern Ireland where she grew up wants to know all about hers.

Since her da disappeared during the Troubles, Majella has tried to live a quiet life with her alcoholic mother. She works in the local chip shop (Monday-Saturday, Sunday off), wears the same clothes every day (overalls, too small), has the same dinner each night (fish and chips, nuked in the microwave) and binge watches Dallas (the best show ever aired on TV) from the safety of her single bed. She has no friends and no boyfriend and Majella thinks things are better that way.

But Majella’s safe and predictable existence is shattered when her grandmother dies and as much as she wants things to go back to normal, Majella comes to realise that maybe there is more to life. And it might just be that from tragedy comes Majella’s one chance at escape.

Review

A few reviews back I declared myself a Nina Hill superfan, today I am announcing my status as an Majella enthusiast. I love the character, her bawdy charm, her oddness and her courage. She is a character of great depth, innate charm and she is a wonderful creation, who fills the pages of this novel with such presence, that I doubt I will ever forget her.

Majella knows not everyone gets a volley of gunshots at their graves, but she doesn’t know that she is autistic, where her dad is or why her mum drinks. She works hard every day except Sunday in the village chip shop, loves sex, doesn’t want a boyfriend, loves a fish supper and lives a less than extraordinary life. But don’t mistake that for meaning she herself is not extraordinary, she is! She is honest, considerate of others, looking after her mum, putting up with wise cracks from customers so not to offend them, making Majella feel warm and real to life. By the end of the book I was besotted with her. Who could not, superb characterisation, with the writer giving is a sensitive portrayal that is nuanced and informed. She never makes Majella the source of the amusement, rather the characters who we see through her eyes, entering into the chip shop, become not only the rich tapestry around which her life flows, but the comedy element of the story.

The story itself, really is Majella and her view of the world around her, distorted by her autism and yet at the same time, it shows the sometimes absurd and moving events in greater clarity because of the honesty of the narrative. It makes the book feel unique and also deeply touching, because your given time within the story to get to really know Majella. How she thinks and how her autism shapes her perceptions of the world around her. Setting the story in a small community was a masterstroke, because it allows her individualism to shine.

This a deeply moving read, with humour that lifts the story and creates a warmth and love for Majella, which I think will be the books lasting legacy!

You can purchase this novel from Amazon and Waterstones.

About the author

Michelle Gallen was born in Tyrone in the 1970s and grew up during the Troubles a few miles from the British border in Ireland. She studied English literature at Trinity College Dublin and Publishing at Stirling University. She has been published in the Stinging Fly, Mslexia and other publications, and won the Orange/NW short story award.

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