I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first opened Factory Girls, the newest novel by Irish author Michelle Gallen. Her previous novel, Big Girl, Small Town, is much loved, so I hoped her sophomore effort would be an equally high-quality read. Having grown up in the 80’s and 90’s, I recall hearing stories of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, so my interest was piqued by the subject matter and setting. Little did I know I was in for more than a lesson in Irish history with this wonderful new literary fiction.
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Factory Girls: Synopsis
It’s the summer of 1994. Maeve and her best friends, Aoife and Caroline, are determined to spend their last days in their bleak little Northern Irish town earning a little money and getting pished. Waiting on their GCSE scores is going to be brutal, but maybe a job at the local factory will help pass the time and put some much needed coin in their pockets. After all, if Maeve’s going to make it in London, she’ll need a bit of scratch to get by. Hopefully her grades will secure her spot at University and her ticket out of this hell hole of a town.
Having grown up during The Troubles, Maeve and the girls are accustomed to living segregated existences. Taigs (Catholics) and Prods (Protestants) rarely comingle on purpose other than moments of conflict. So when they get jobs on the factory floor it’s a shock to see that Prods and Taigs are working alongside each other with nary a killing. Now Maeve and her friends must learn to put aside their differences to fit into the delicate factory ecosystem.
But tolerance doesn’t come easy to Maeve, who’s been known to step out of line a time or two in the name of her faith and her convictions. She’s got plenty to be mad about, having been victim to great loss and local sectarian violence throughout her short life. Not to mention the poverty and disenfranchisement she and many of the other locals have experienced at the hands of the British and the RUC. Her new boss, Andy, happens to be British, making him a perfect target for her rage. But there’s something about Andy that gets her going, and not in the way she expected.
As the summer comes to a close, tensions run high all around Maeve. Factory life is at its lowest, with threats of wage losses and closure looming large. Violence continues in the community despite reports of peace talks and ceasefires. And when exam results arrive, Maeve’s once solid friendships now seem to be fractured possibly beyond repair. As everything comes to a head, will Maeve’s brash behavior finally bite her in the arse?
Factory Girls: Musings
It didn’t take long for me to fall head over heels for Factory Girls. In fact, it was probably somewhere around page 5 that I realized I was reading a five-star book. We first meet our protagonist, Maeve, during a job interview in which she realizes she’s a bit turned on by the smarmy British bloke she’s supposed to hate. Brash, bold, and, more often than not, a little too brazen, Maeve is the epitome of Gen X angst. Her attitude towards life is refreshingly authentic, taking me right back to my youth when I was full of the same piss and vinegar.
There is NOTHING I love more than diving into a book written in a dialect specific to the novel’s location, time period, and characters. The author’s use of the local vernacular soars in Factory Girls, giving it an authenticity I don’t think it would otherwise have had. Gallen’s voice screams from the pages of Factory Girls, breathing life into what might otherwise have been just another story of young girls on the precipice of adult life. The language she uses to conjure up the many unforgettable characters of this book is emotive and immersive.
Not only is this book moving and though-provokingly powerful, it’s also funny as hell. There were many times that I laughed aloud at Maeve’s jaunty comebacks or Fidelma’s edgy wisecracks. And the use of 90’s cultural references added flair and fun, even in some of the darkest moments. I wholeheartedly enjoyed slipping back into my 90s skin to relive my teenage years for a few hundred pages. While I may have been way across the pond, there’s a lot I can relate to about Maeve’s story. Remember that feeling like you’re ready to take on the world if only you could get a ride to town…
While I didn’t grow up in Europe, I do recall stories of violence pouring out of Ireland in the early 90s. Thanks to MTV, Spin magazine, and powerful lyrics, I was waking up to the world outside my small town. Bands like U2 and The Cranberries brought The Troubles into mainstream consciousness, making it hard to look away at the death and destruction plaguing Ireland. Songs like “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and “Zombie” became anthems that young people everywhere could rally behind. Reading this book brought me back to first period, watching scenes of bloody violence on Channel 1, wondering what life must be like for kids my age in Ireland at the time. Gallen’s use of descriptive details to describe the constant threat of violence in the most mundane moments is compelling and sometimes terrifying. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between some scenarios in the book and recent mass casualty events here in the US.
More than anything, this book captures what it feels like to be on the edge of what’s to come, close enough to taste freedom while still craving the familiar. Like Maeve, I was desperate to get out of my tiny town and break the cycle of poverty around me. And just like Maeve, my grades were my ticket out. There was so much of my own truth in the pages of this book it felt sometimes like reading my diary. The oppressive boredom, the never-ending quest for some craic (fun), and the angst and fear swirling just beneath the surface effectively capture what it felt like to be 18…at least for me.
Factory Girls: Rating
Though I know this book won’t be for everyone, those who enjoy stories of sociopolitical tension, classism, and the effects of poverty and violence will undoubtedly find much to love about Factory Girls. It’s full of heart and hope despite the bleak and bleary backdrop of Northern Ireland during a difficult period of modern history. Gen Xers, fans of Derry Girls, and anyone looking for a bit of craic will want to pick this one up!
Anyone looking to make the magic of Factory Girls last a wee bit longer should check out Derry Girls on Netflix! Hysterically funny and full of the same youthful charm of the Gallen’s new book.
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