Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Northern Irish Vernacular

I liked the idea of reading a Northern Irish novel that used more of the phonetic vernacular as encountered in  Milkman by Anna Burns. Years ago on my first visit there, I bought a slim volume on some of the words used in the North but out of the context of a story or novel they made little sense and in the course of travels there wasn’t enough exposure to it to immerse in. So this seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I got so into it, I started writing to a friend about weans and oul wans an shite. She thought I was typing too fast and not using spellcheck.  And from the comments I’ve read on twitter by those who would know, it’s been deemed an authentic rendition.

The vernacular dialogue in this is absolutely perfect. Captures the patter, the understatement, the colour, the wry knowingness of the exchanges. Rónán Hession

Big Girl, Small Town takes place during a week in the life of socially awkward but inwardly clear-eyed 27-year-old Majella who from the opening page we learn has a list of stuff in her head she isn’t keen on, a top ten that hasn’t changed in seven years. Things like gossip, physical contact, noise, bright lights, scented stuff, sweating, jokes and make-up.

Sometimes Majella thought that she should condense her whole list of things she wasn’t keen on into a single item:  – Other People.

The list of things she does see the point in is shorter and includes eating, Dallas (except for the 1985-86 season), her da, her granny, Smithwicks (the most consumed Irish ale in Ireland), painkillers, cleaning and sex.

She lives with her alcoholic mother in a fictional border town, her father disappeared years before, presumed not to be living, though no one knows that for sure. They have just heard news of the death of her 85-year-old Granny, suspected as murder.

A Unique Narrative Structure

Each chapter begins with a time of day and an item from the list, such as:

Monday
4.04 p.m.
Item 12.2 Conversation: Rhetorical questions

and the story is narrated through her regular, unchangeable routine and manifestations of these items as she encounters them, like here where she shares one of her pet dislikes, her mother’s rhetorical questions.

Majella? D’ye not have work tae go til this evening?
Majella had work to go to, just as she had done every Monday for the past nine years. And Majella knew that her Ma knew that, because her work schedule and weekly Mass were the only routines their lives revolved around.

Donegal McCleans Malin

Outside a pub & grocery store in Malin, Donegal

Majella works in a local fish and chip shop with her colleague Marty and each evening we meet local characters and encounter more items; 3.3 Noise: Shutters in work and item 3.4: Noise: Shite singing, item 1: Small talk, bullshit and gossip, item 8.4: Jokes: Repeated jokes.

There’s routine and repetition and although it might seem uninteresting to follow along day after in this quotidian recital, even the chip counter conversations and order placements I enjoy, triggering as they do a recent (Oct 2019) humorous encounter of our own in a chipper (chip shop) in Northern Ireland.

Digression – A Personal Experience of Linguistic Nuance

I now understand better having finished the book, why the man at the chipper in Newcastle looked aghast at my son when in response to his question ‘Do you wan sauce onit?’ he replied ‘Yes please, Moutarde, I mean Mustard’. This was after my son had looked at me and said, ‘I can’t understand what he’s saying’, when the man asked him following his request for a chicken burger, ‘Wud ya likit S’thrn fried or Batter’d?’. I said ‘I’m not going to explain what battered is, so just take Southern Fried’. Who’d have thought a takeaway shop could provide such an entertaining, cross-cultural experience.

In Majella’s chipper, no one ever asks for mustard. Some of them ask for things that go beyond the everyday boundaries of pleasantries, the banter of some replays itself each visit, like an old record on repeat. Majella is clearly intelligent but hasn’t been in an environment that has encouraged to pursue that elsewhere, so instead she has found a role that suits her character (in a town with the highest unemployment rate in the country) and despite everything, it is clear that she is unlikely to become trapped by the same vices that capture most who’ve given up on their dreams.

It’s entertaining, it’s kind of sad, it’s funny and also confrontational. You read it and feel like you’re really in the skin of this character and though we might want more for her, it’s clear she’s ok and if watching Dallas reruns sounds a bit odd, it provides a bit of a cliffhanger of an ending as she reflects on the lessons of that Machiavellian character J.R. Ewing.  While most probably only saw what she was on the outside, beneath it all she was totally in charge of herself and about to become even more empowered than she had ever been.

The Author Michelle Gallen

Michelle Gallen Big Girl Small Town

Her debut novel,  Big Girl, Small Town has been nominated for the CWIP Prize (Comedy Women in Print) 2020, the UK and Ireland’s first comedy literary prize. In the podcast below she discusses why it has taken so long for this type of women’s writing to appear, suggesting that in the North there has been a sea-change, a cultural change that has finally enabled different voices to come in that allows women to write bawdy, irreverent, darkly humourous content that addresses sex in a very frank way.

Michelle Gallen – who grew up in the most bombed small town in Europe post World War II and went to school in an area with the highest unemployment rate in the industrially developed world – when interviewed, said of her motivation:

“I wrote Big Girl Small Town to shine a spotlight on the consequences of the British-Irish border on a family in a deeply divided community over decades of peace and ruthless violence. It tells the story from the dark heart of the community, revealing the human growth and resilience of a proudly ungovernable community on the very edge of Britain.”

She admits that Majella might be happier if she’d watched less Dallas and read more books. Asked how she thought Majella would have coped with corona virus, she said:

“I think that while Majella would welcome the social distancing aspect of managing Covid-19, she would – like most people – be intensely worried for the virus’s effect on those who are vulnerable: the sick, the infirm and the elderly.”

And on what she might find comfort in reading:

“She would find a kindred soul in the narrator of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. She’d have a real laugh reading Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies. And I can see her finding comfort in the lovely Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession.” Michelle Gallen

Comedy Women in Print Literary Prize 2020

Further Reading & Listening

Irish Times Article – Post troubles tale of a damaged woman 

Irish News Interview – Tyrone author’s debut novel delves into our troubled past with a helping of chips and Dallas on repeat

Irish Times The Woman’s Podcast, Episode 396 starts at 27.50 : Listen to three of Ireland’s newest authors Michelle Gallen, Niamh Campbell and Rachel Donohue join Róisín Ingle to speak about their debut novels and the inspiration behind them.

Audio Extract: Listen to 2 minutes from the beginning of the novel, read by Nicola Coughlin

Milkman by Anna Burns

As you may know, Milkman by the Northern Irish author Anna Burns was the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018

Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2018 Chair of judges, had this to say:

‘None of us has ever read anything like this before. Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance, threaded with mordant humour. Set in a society divided against itself, Milkman explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life.’

On finishing it I was left with a similar feeling as when I completed another Booker prize-winning novel, Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, that is, a feeling of exhaustion and of wonder, how could an author sustain this kind of writing, stay with this voice, day after day for as long as it took to write this? And what must it be like to live in or imagine living in a community as stifling as this. Just astounding.

I am in awe. It is no easy read, for it is written in a kind of double, triple speak, depicting a life and set of circumstances that is constantly in check, a circumventing of self. It describes from the inside how one young woman navigates daily life in a community that has drawn so many convoluted, coded lines of behaviour, that lives by so many unspoken, rigidly enforced violent rules, that has morphed into something so far from authenticity, that only the very ‘different’, appear able to, or indeed risk, living life true unto themselves, except those who left the country forever, their tale not told here, those that got away.

All this is told through the stream of consciousness narrative of an 18-year-old girl, as she observes her community and family insinuate a dramatic story onto her about a 40 something married man they call ‘Milkman’ (not to be confused with “the milkman”), a narrative trussed up by rumour, assumption, gossip, anything uttered or speculated on, except what the young woman has to say.

It doesn’t help that the one time she comes out of her silence and decides to share the boring truth, that there is and has never been anything going on between her and this man, she tells this to her pious mother, the one place she might find support.

During this ma looked at me without interruption but when I finished, and without hesitation she called me a liar, saying this deceit was nothing but a further mockery of herself. She spoke of other meetings then, between me and the milkman, besides the two to which I admitted. The community was keeping her abreast, she said, which meant she knew I met him for immoral trysts and assignations, knew too, of what we got up to in places too indecent even to give the ‘dot dot dot’ to. ‘You’re some sort of mob-woman,’ she said. ‘Out of the pale. Lost your intrinsic rights and wrongs. You make it hard, wee girl, to love you and if your poor father was alive, certainly he’d have something to say about this.’ she said. I doubted it.

‘Middle sister’ as she is referred to, thinks in a kind of coded language full of uttered phrases that substitute for a more succinct opinion, so that even the reader must enter into this “insinuating” talk to understand her thoughts, for nothing is stated plainly, just as nothing is observed or clarified as it really is. And we get good at it, at this revealing what is really being said, even beginning to see the humor in it, when none of it really is funny, there’s too much death, tragedy, sadness, ridiculousness. It’s not a life, it’s a trap.

It is a kind of prison that she manages temporarily to escape from or live with by going running with third brother-in-law, taking French lessons and ‘reading while walking’ literature from other, older centuries. But trying to remain separate and invisible to all the categories, has put her in the worst possible position, ‘beyond the pale’, her longest friend since primary school informs her.

‘Even you must appreciate, that as far as they’re concerned you’ve fallen into the difficult zone.’ She meant the ‘informer-type’ zone – not that I was an informer. It was that miscellany territory where, like the informer, you’re not accepted, you’re not admired, you’re not respected, not by one side, not by the other side, not by anybody, not even really by yourself. In my case though, seems I’d fallen into the difficult zone not only because I wouldn’t tell my life to others, or because of my numbance, or because of my suspiciousness of questions. What was also being held against me was that I wasn’t seen as the clean girlfriend, as in, he didn’t have other attachments. He did have other attachments. One was his wife. So I was the upstart, the little Frenchwoman, the arriviste, the hussy.

And then it is so much more as Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado shares in her brilliant essay in the Dublin Review of Books Gender in Conflict where she describes Anna Burns writing as exploring “the impact in Northern Ireland of a level of violence that has become ordinary and has turned into the cultural norm” in particular that gendered violence is everywhere and unacknowledged.

Burns’ use of surrealism is a highly effective method whereby the author defamiliarises dominant (and often misrepresentative) narratives of the conflict and its legacy that circulate within the media and popular culture. The surrealist mode allows her to represent the psychological effects of trauma – registering what she calls “the feeling reality, rather than necessarily what happened”

“In an unstoppable torrent of words, she gives voice to the women who endured unspeakable violence during the Troubles, making a powerful and necessary feminist intervention into the literary legacy of the conflict.”  Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado

It’s an original, thought-provoking, cathartic read that stays with you long after reading, it puts the reader in total sympathy with the character of middle sister and creates a feeling of there being no way out, seeing her almost as the anti-hero for succeeding at least in losing herself through literature and a foreign language, gone momentarily from this nightmare, despite never being safe from the ever-present unwanted attention.

Highly recommended, if you want a more literary read and insight into the difficulty of living within a fraught political community.

The Author

Anna Burns was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1962. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella, Mostly Hero. In 2001 she won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted
for the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex, England.

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