Big Girl Small Town opens with a numbered list of its heroine's likes and dislikes: Dallas, Smithwick's and sex make it on to the "keen on" list, while "small talk, bullshit and gossip" top the "not keen on" list. The latter extends to 97 items, many of which form the chapter headings in Michelle Gallen's debut, following a week in the life of Majella O'Neill, a 27-year-old living in the fictional border town of Aghybogey with her alcoholic, pill-popping mother. Majella's father disappeared years before, and is now widely assumed dead, though no one knows for sure.
It's 2004, a decade on from the IRA ceasefire, and the Tyrone-born author presents an intriguing portrait of a town struggling to find a new normal: "It still felt strange to Majella, though it had been five years or more, to walk about Aghybogey without soldiers, or the chance of them. It felt like there was something missing."
Majella copes by clinging to a rigid schedule based around her job in the local chipper, A Salt and Battered! Every day, she wakes up late, prepares tea and toast for her hungover mother, watches her beloved Dallas in bed, and heads to work with her colleague and occasional lover Marty, Aghybogey's resident gossip-monger.
But Majella's routine is disrupted by the sudden death of her grandmother, who was brutally beaten during a break-in at her home. The novel begins just after the funeral, with Majella thrust into the spotlight in a town where everyone knows her name and her life story, and now they want to hungrily speculate over who attacked her granny and why, and how come Majella isn't more affected by it?
The way Gallen sets up the story of the murder in the opening pages means that readers may find themselves waiting for new developments for much of the book, yet Gallen eschews such twists and turns to zero in on the minutiae of Majella's life - she doesn't change a tampon without us hearing about it in explicit detail. At first, these patterns of behaviour are almost mesmerising in their ritualistic repetition, but in time, it grows so monotonous that her trip to buy a new duvet stands out as a highlight, a rare diversion from the tedium of her routine.
Details about the death of her grandmother, and the disappearance of her father arrive obliquely. When officers from the PSNI visit the O'Neills at home to talk about the murder investigation, Gallen skips ahead to Majella's shift at the chipper - she's not interested in thriller-style intrigue, and prefers to focus on the humdrum sequences at work. Much of the novel's humour is derived from these interactions with customers, from sleazy Jake the Snake Connolly to the sex-starved McQuaid sisters.
Majella loathes small talk, but she can deliver well-rehearsed lines on cue ("D'ye want a bit of my sausage?" heaves one regular, to which Majella waits a customary five seconds before replying: "I'll batter yer sausage if you're not careful, now"), and the use of Northern Irish dialect evokes a palpable sense of place, without being too dense to follow.
The publisher is happy to note that Majella is autistic, a term that doesn't appear in the novel, though it is suggested in Majella's repetitive movements and difficulty in social situations. And while her neighbours are bemused by her outwardly stoic response to her loss, Gallen subtly elucidates the destabilising effects of grief. She has great empathy for Majella, and has crafted a remarkably frank, clear voice for her lead character.
Gallen applies a darkly humorous perspective to the painful history of the Troubles and the bleak landscape of Aghybogey, yet Big Girl Small Town nonetheless makes for a grim read, and is much heavier going than Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine or Derry Girls, both of which it has drawn comparisons to.
Majella has no friends, and when she's not in the chipper, her time is spent dosing out her mother's prescription painkillers and cleaning up her vomit, while she roars about her "fat useless lump of a daughter".
The revelation of her grandmother's will offers Majella what the blurb teases as "her one chance at escape", though she doesn't seem all that eager to escape. We don't get any hints of a larger ambition - Majella recalls her old friend Aideen, who moved to London after school, without indicating she ever considered joining her.
Big Girl Small Town is at times shocking - cat lovers should proceed with caution, and the account of a smear test is not for the faint of heart - yet the story feels undercooked, with mysteries left unsolved and little sense of closure.
There is a glimmer of hope in the final paragraphs, one that will likely spark curiosity for a sequel. Gallen already has a wonderful grasp on her heroine; if Majella were to return, hopefully she'd have more of a handle on the story as well.