Fact: If I had more time and a freer schedule, I would have read Factory Girls twice before reviewing as it is one novel that really needs to be read more than once to absorb what’s going on and what one feels (and thinks) by the end. Regardless, let’s move on to a review of this brilliant literary novel by Irish writer, Michelle Gallen.
Blurb: 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.
Bitingly hilarious, clear-eyed, and steeped in the vernacular of its time and place, Factory Girls tackles questions of wealth and power, religion and nationalism, and how young women maintain hope for themselves and the future during divided, violent times.
Having just devoured the Derry Girls, which sounds slightly cannibalistic of me, I entered Michelle Gallen’s similar world of a small town in Northern Ireland in Factory Girls believing I knew much more than I did. From the time I was born, there were always troubles in Northern Ireland with the IRA being painted in the light of terrorists. Not one time do I recall having heard the abbreviations UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) or UDA (Ulster Defense Association) or INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) bandied about on the news in the DC metro area, although I’m sure they must have been but never were they uttered as often as IRA. So I had to look up these abbreviations as I read, wondering why they were not as readily part of the vernacular here and why the obvious fact that there were acts of terrorism on both sides was never quite as prevalently mentioned. I presume like history everywhere, more information is made apparent when information isn’t controlled. Regardless, on multiple levels Factory Girls was an eye-opening, funny, gritty, and unflinching read.
Factory Girls has a countdown: the number of days to when the trio of Maeve, Aoife, and Caroline receive their results that will determine where or if they’re going to University. For the summer, they get jobs working at the local shirt factory, one of the few factories that hasn’t folded (no pun intended) to Asian competition. The factory is run by an English man, Andy Strawbridge, who has the apt but unsavory nickname of Handy Andy gained not from his usefulness around the factory floor. Interestingly, Maeve is equally drawn to and repulsed by him. As the summer progresses and the end of the countdown looms, each girl changes and begins to make their own way.
Maeve is by far one of the most interesting characters I’ve read about lately. At first, I wasn’t very interested in her, presuming that she was going to be unsavory with an in-your-face antagonism, but that wasn’t the case. Maeve is the kind of person who thinks something and actually says and does it, unexpectedly–and we’re not talking about easy things. We’re talking about calling out patriarchy when it’s staring you in the face and you cannot do anything about it other than blatantly acknowledge its existence regardless of the ramifications. One knows that Maeve will be a force of change if she has the opportunity.
At one point, Andy calls Maeve to his office and gives her something unexpected: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friend & Influence People, which Maeve reads and considers as she interacts with Prods (Protestants) and everyone else often discovering the book’s lack of pertinence to her own life.
Throughout Factory Girls, Maeve recalls memories of her older sister Deirdre who killed herself. These scenes punctuate Maeve’s strength while showing how the constant violence can decimate a young person’s psyche, how its effects welcome despondency, how a person reacts when there seems like there’s nothing ahead. While someone points out to Maeve that suicide rates are actually lower when a country’s in conflict, that’s little comfort to Maeve who has already lost her sister to suicide. All Maeve wants is to get away.
Factory Girls may not be a perfect novel but it accomplishes what it set out to do: show one young woman’s determined passage through a town where every day brings about violence, where you have to look for escape routes and places of protection, where nothing is certain, and everything is unpredictable. Told with humor and grit, it’s a welcome change from the typical.
As a historical novel (setting of 1994), Factory Girls begs to be continued because I sincerely want to see Maeve’s life evolve and who she becomes because of her strength and unpredictability.
I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.