Review of Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen @AlgonquinBooks @michellegallen

Big Girl, Small Town

Michelle Gallen

December 1, 2020

Algonquin Books

Blurb: Meet Majella O’Neill, a heroine like no other, in this captivating Irish debut that has been called Milkman meets Derry Girls

Majella is happiest out of the spotlight, away from her neighbors’ stares and the gossips of the small town in Northern Ireland where she grew up just after the Troubles. She lives a quiet life caring for her alcoholic mother, working in the local chip shop, watching the regular customers come and go. She wears the same clothes each day (overalls, too small), has the same dinner each night (fish and chips, microwaved at home after her shift ends), and binge-watches old DVDs of the same show (Dallas, best show on TV) from the comfort of her bed. 

But underneath Majella’s seemingly ordinary life are the facts that she doesn’t know where her father is and that every person in her town has been changed by the lingering divide between Protestants and Catholics. When Majella’s predictable existence is upended by the death of her granny, she comes to realize there may be more to life than the gossips of Aghybogey, the pub, and the chip shop. In fact, there just may be a whole big world outside her small town. 

Told in a highly original voice, with a captivating heroine readers will love and root for, Big Girl, Small Town will appeal to fans of Sally Rooney, Ottessa Moshfegh, and accessible literary fiction with an edge.

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Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen is an entertaining and earnest novel about Majella O’Neill, an autistic woman of 27 who works in a chip shop in a town on the border in Northern Ireland. The novel spans a week in Majella’s life after the murder of her grandmother.

Gallen wrote the story in vernacular, which definitely takes several chapters to get used to and some of the slang (“cleastered” comes to mind, which is still, even after a Google search, undefined) can only be guessed at. But the language defines the story.

I would love to say that I found the story to be as amazingly “hilarious” as many reviews indicate, but I didn’t. Certainly naming chip shops “The Cod Father” and “A Salt and Battered!” are amusing, although the latter is not quite as funny when one discovers that Majella’s gran was beaten and left to die. Comparisons to what I consider to be the hugely funny Derry Girls fall flat to me, perhaps because much of the Derry Girls is physical humor while the humor in Big Girl, Small Town is based on observations.

I found some parts of the novel to be disturbing and have tried to determine why it was necessary to include them. What does a detailed description of drowning tiny kittens accomplish as part of the narrative? A lesson that the weak don’t survive? That life is not under your control? Or, is it meant to impart nothing at all, except to leave this particular reader upset.

Where Big Girl, Small Town excels is in its character study of Majella. She is far more intelligent and intuitive than people give her credit for and she is an interesting combination of naïve and insightful. At the end of the novel, the reader knows/hopes that Majella will surprise all of the people who’ve underestimated her and taunted her over the years. I also hope that Majella finds an ally now that her beloved grandmother is gone.

While I began reading Big Girl, Small Town expecting a different type of novel, I did ultimately enjoy it. And, I suspect a second reading would definitely enhance my experience because between the use of vernacular and with so much occurring within the novel–deceptively–since, while the action is all within a week’s time, it also encompasses the unique life in Northern Ireland with the history being very much the present, just less so, I know I missed and would appreciate many scenes more. There are so many unanswered questions: what happened to Majella’s father? Who killed her grandmother? The answers are hinted at, indicating deeper levels than what the reader assumes from the surface. Perhaps I’ll even appreciate the funny bits more .

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.



4 out of 5 butterflies


Michelle Gallen was born in County Tyrone in the mid 1970s and grew up during the Troubles a few miles from the border between what she was told was the “‘Free” State and the “United” Kingdom. She studied English literature at Trinity College Dublin and won several prestigious prizes as a young writer. Following a devastating brain injury in her midtwenties, she co-founded three award-winning companies and won international recognition for digital innovation. She now lives in Dublin with her husband and kids.

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