Vacation Time is too fast running out but I hope there is time to read a couple more novels BUT I imagine I can declare right now that Michelle Gallen’s Factory Girls is my book of the summer.
What is it with Northern Irish writers. Female ones particularly. Every time two or three impress me I find I have missed another. Somehow I missed Gallen’s debut Big Girl Small Town. Having bought this second novel in my stock-up-for-summer binge day at No Alibis book shop I had it down my summer list.
Then a Tweet thread between No Alibis’ proprietor and general guru in all thing local novel David Torrens and maybe Jan Carson had me pushing it up the priority list. I am so glad they advised.
Factory Girls? Where do I start? What is it? Comedy? Troubles Literature? Social commentary? Political? The truth is that it is everything and more.
Three girls await their A Levels in the extraordinary summer of 1994 in the least extraordinary of places - small town County Tyrone. Through music, sporting and political events Gallen reminds us all of a time before peace, when peace was supposedly coming but no quite believed that things were gonna get better.
Maeve, Caroline and middle class Aoife get summer jobs as they await their A Level results and their hopes of escape. They and we find themselves and ourselves caught up in factory politics, paramilitary bullying, a strict apartheid society and omnipresent misogyny. The bigger fear is that if it is all fixed, the town loses the factory, all of their jobs and any kind of hope at all.
Our three buddies, led by the potty mouthed but shrewd Maeve Murray, who could be straight outta Derry Girls, get entangled in, try to untangle out and all the time their dreams of University hang like yet another shadow.
Their innocence and experience sit cheek by jowl in just two months as they watch factory manager Andy Strawbridge tease and torment them with things that they might want, all the time knowing deep down that they really don’t. The more that they discover the more they need to stand for something but will they?
Michelle Gallen is an extraordinary writer. She weaves hilarious comedy with the darkest of social commentary. She develops characters quickly, not just the main ones but them all. She has one liners that are filled with insightful cultural diagnosis and leads you towards hopefulness in the bleakest of places… and laugh out loud. You laugh a lot.
Depth charges abound too. My favourite is: "Blair looked like the sort of toothy creature you'd see in a. Free Presbyterian Church, a man who believed way too hard on the wrong thing". You don't need to be Free Presbyterian to let that missile search you deep.
All of this with a plot that twists and turns, holding you in its grip, and never quite allowing you to conclude an ending. Factory Girls takes us back to another very particular time to see the horror of how we lived and then asks us how far we’ve moved on.