For Maeve Murray and her small town in pre-ceasefire Tyrone, the summer of 1994 boils with tension and possibility. Not only does she have to contend with the pressure-cooker combination of her impending exam results and an escalating sectarian divide, she also has to avoid her boss’s wandering eye after landing her first job in the local shirt factory.
Working on the mixed-community factory floor gives fierce, funny and forceful Maeve a front-row view of the complexities and tribalism that come with working with ‘the Prods’. But it also offers a glimpse as to what life could be like if she stays at home instead of escaping to London, where she imagines a glamorous life in journalism. “She knew about cocktails from an article in Select magazine. One of their writers had been paid to get pissed on Cosmopolitans and Sex on the Beach... it had given Maeve the impression that writing articles for magazines was far better craic than investigating paramiliary murders.”
Right now, she couldn’t be further from the shining promise of opportunity over the water, having gone through life experiencing a “particularly shitty brand of Six Counties luck”: “She felt like the Brits were manning a permanent checkpoint in front of her while the Catholic Church breathed hellfire down her neck.”
Trying to escape the ghost of her dead sister that lingers in her mother’s eyes, Maeve hangs her dreams on those exam results — if she survives summer in the factory with ‘Handy’ Andy, that is.
Street-smart, ballsy and bold, Maeve has us hanging on to her every word. She might remind us of Michelle from Derry Girls with her hilariously filthy mouth and mind, but there’s a wisdom and cynicism there that’s too heavy for a 17-year-old to bear. Maeve lists her dead as casually as she lists her shopping, but beneath the cavalier attitude, there’s a deeply rooted fury at her powerlessness in the face of the conflict that has shaped her life.
Gallen expertly does what the oppressed and traumatised have done for centuries — she channels the pain through her funny bone. Maeve’s bravado is always cheek to cheek with her fear, pain and disappointment. The world of Factory Girls is filtered through her darkly witty mind, but it’s also punctuated by shocking and sudden violence. Amid the antics of drunken after-work shenanigans and nostalgic 90s references to the unbeatable Vienetta ice cream, seemingly innocuous things spark troubled memories for Maeve. So delicately and nonchalantly are they peppered in among the hilarity that Gallen has her readers simultaneously choking on tears and laughter.
Behind the humour, the cast of factory workers and neighbours all seem haunted. Gallen expertly fleshes out her cast with brief but affecting snippets of their lives, anecdotes and eccentricities that render them vividly until there’s an entire town full of people gazing out of the pages, jostling for attention. But behind each wicked quip; there is a trauma; the weight of a survivor behind the sparkle of quick wit in every eye.
Broken bodies, fractured lives and bombed buildings — this is the Tyrone Maeve knows. But it is also where she necks her vodka oranges in the local with her friend Caroline and where she nurtured her dream of being a journalist. The same Tyrone where she first tasted independence by moving into her own flat and earning that first payslip.
While on the surface she is desperate to escape, a key part of her relationship with this place is that she wants to leave it better than she found it. Maybe it’s the summer to keep her head down and save up before fleeing. Or could it finally be the summer to stand up and make a difference while she can, where she can? Maeve is a catalyst for change, because despite the cynicism and circumstances that have worn her and her community down; she still has that innate need to find some sort of justice, some sort of resolution to this conflict that has defined her upbringing. Maeve, despite all the odds being against it, still has that spark of hope for change and that belief that she is powerful enough to enact it.
Gallen captures the experience and mindset of a young woman at a time when reality crashes in, when the place where she were raised robs her of possibility. Maeve can’t imagine a happy ending for someone like her.
Gallen’s pen draws blood with the sharpness of her observations, rendering a fresh and acutely more complex portrait of Northern Ireland through Maeve’s eyes. Gallen asks, what can one young woman do with hope? Maeve Murray answers.
There’s a masterful tenderness to this story that is made all the more powerful by the grimy outer layers. Cutting through them, you’ll find good years and bad years, moments of intense joy and intense pain. Brilliantly, wickedly funny and soul-crushingly sad, Gallen has written the Vienetta of books this summer.
Fiction: Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen
John Murray, 304 pages, trade paperback €21.20; e-book £7.99