Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen
For a life inside the Troubles in Northern Ireland, for an almost slice-of-life story of one girl just trying to live her life, for a lot of irish-y slang and words that you fall into the rhythm of
It’s the summer of 1994, and all smart-mouthed Maeve Murray wants are good final exam results so she can earn her ticket out of the wee Northern Irish town she has grown up in during the Troubles. She hopes she will soon be in London studying journalism—away from her crowded home, the silence and sadness surrounding her sister’s death, and most of all, away from the violence of her divided community.
As a first step, Maeve’s taken a job in a shirt factory working alongside Protestants with her best friends. But getting the right exam results is only part of Maeve’s problem—she’s got to survive a tit-for-tat paramilitary campaign, iron 100 shirts an hour all day every day, and deal with the attentions of Handy Andy Strawbridge, her slick and untrustworthy English boss. Then, as the British loyalist marching season raises tensions among the Catholic and Protestant workforce, Maeve realizes something is going on behind the scenes at the factory. What seems to be a great opportunity to earn money turns out to be a crucible in which Maeve faces the test of a lifetime. Seeking justice for herself and her fellow workers may just be Maeve’s one-way ticket out of town.
I enjoyed reading this every time I picked it up, but now that I’ve finished it I’m left thinking, wait what was the plot of this? What was the resolution? WAS there one? It’s kind of a weird feeling, because it was kind of a weird ending. It felt very abrupt to me, like even a cop out epilogue that was like “five years later…” would have helped. Still, it was decent overall. There was a lot of historical context that I’ve never learned much about, so this was wildly educational for me in a way, too.
Since it’s set in Northern Ireland in 1994, there’s of course lots of Irish English words (and sometimes just Irish Irish words!) like craic and biccies and boke. Luckily I knew a few of these (craic is fun, a good time, interesting shit, and sounds like crack) and could figure others out through context (the biccies they have with tea are probably biscuits). Some took me a while though, like boke, which I didn’t figure out contextually until probably 70% of the way through after many examples. xD There were others I really didn’t get at all, but was able to just move on and get the gist of a sentence of thought from the rest of it.
Personally I really enjoyed the language of it, as it all sounded really natural in my head and didn’t take effort to read as some speech can (example: when I first read The Help and I had to adjust to the rhythm and terms). Maybe that’s because I have some Irish heritage helping me out, but probably not — it was just well done. That said, I had no idea how to pronounce Aoife’s name, and had to look it up (I was very wrong in my guess).
One theme that came up a few times was that of Maeve and Aoife being from very different social and lifestyle classes. Particularly this came up when Aoife would complain about something and Maeve was having a hard time feeling sympathetic considering the shit Maeve deals with daily and the barriers she faces that Aoife never will. I appreciate that Aoife even acknowledged that at one point, saying how she knows it’s probably annoying to hear her complain, but who else does she have? To Aoife’s view, her complaints are just as valid and difficult as Maeve’s are to Maeve. This was a surprisingly tangled social and friendship issue that was a bit of a side plot, but added a lot to it all for me.
Okay, last bits I’ll be brief with:
– If asked the plot, I guess I’d say it’s about a teen girl trying to work in a grueling factory job amidst sociopolitical violence, awaiting her chance to leave the town. That’s kind of squishy though, and there wasn’t a lot of forward momentum. It was more like just seeing the way she lives while she waits for her results.
– The factory descriptions themselves were plentiful, and about half the book is set there. Amazingly, that never got boring considering the nature of the job and location.
– Andy Strawbridge did not play the role I thought he would. I was kind of confused by him to be honest, and by Maeve’s interactions with him.
– This book is violent and vulgar. The vulgar is sometimes in fun ways, and sometimes in cruel ways. The violence is always terrible, and is often narrated with the forced detachment that Maeve had to adopt living in the Troubles her whole life and knowing nothing different. I genuinely had to stop reading sometimes and just take a break.
5 thoughts on “Review: Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen”
Great review! I really enjoyed Gallen’s debut “Big Girl, Small Town” and have been looking forward to reading this one since I heard about it! There’s something so easy and enjoyable about the author’s writing. Even the mundane everyday things that she usually writes in detail aren’t boring because the characters’ personalities and lives are so intriguing. Not sure that I’m keen on an abrupt ending but I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this one overall!
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That was exactly it! Looking back I’m like, wait nothing really… happened? But I still kept being interested in going back to it and reading, so something was right. 🙂