Northern Ireland is currently producing more exceptional writers per square inch than possibly anywhere else on earth and Michelle Gallen will most certainly earn her place in the honours list with this debut novel. Sinead Moriarty's endorsement "Milkman meets Derry Girls" is as accurate as you'll get. But Big Girl Small Town is even funnier than Derry Girls, while being just as fraught as Anna Burns's Booker Prize winner. Big girl Majella O'Neill is older than Young Woman in Milkman and her schooldays are long gone. She is 27 years old, mildly autistic, and works in A Salt and Battered!, a chip shop in the fictional border town of Agheybogey.
Majella's life, unlike her frame, is tiny. She lives with her alcoholic mother in a decaying council house and fondly remembers her father, one of the Disappeared from the Troubles. It's now November 2004 and nobody has heard of her father, a Republican sympathiser with a dodgy IRA brother, since Majella was a child. Her grandmother has recently been beaten to death in a savage burglary, but still Majella must stoically stick to her routine, six days a week in A Salt and Battered! while reluctantly minding her mother. Time off work is spent under the duvet watching DVDs of Dallas, wishing she was more like JR Ewing; rich, ruthless and powerful. When she feels overwhelmed, Majella flicks her fingers and rocks back and forth a bit, gazing deliberately skywards to prevent any possible tears.
It's a grim picture but the comedy is bawl-out-loud and Gallen has captured the Tyrone vernacular with something akin to genius. "What can ah get chew?" is Majella's opening line to each customer, almost every one of whom has a nickname: Jimmy Nine Pints, Paddy Onions and his son Red Onions, Spade Byrne, Monkey Keane, Mickey the Stool. The chip shop is owned by the Hunters, known to Majella and her colleague Marty as the C*nters. Marty is married with kids, a formidable gossip, and he and Majella occasionally have furtive sexual relations up against the wall in the adjacent alley.
She doesn't much like her mother, an accident-prone disaster of a woman. "She [Majella] knew that between sucking on fags and sucking on her finger she'd have a mouth like a cat's arse by the time she was 40. Just like her ma, who looked like she'd been sucking lemons for most of her life… Her ma had been a good-looking woman. A complete hoor, according to her Aunt Marie, but a good-looking one."
A week into Majella's story sees an unprecedented change in her circumstances. "She considered what JR [Ewing] would do. She thought of all the things he had taught her over the years. Never forgive. Never forget. To do unto others before they do to you.
Lessons Majella had listened to but never learnt from." But she's ready to learn now.
Both Wendy Erskine and Jan Carson come to mind when reading Michelle Gallen. Big Girl shares their kind of hard Northern wit, more survival mechanism than one-upmanship, backlit by the shadow of violence, loss and long memories. That said, it's utterly original and packs a mighty punch. Sara Baume wrote "I grew extraordinarily attached to Majella". So did I.
Michael Joseph, €16.99
Sunday Indo Living