Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen review – dark, deep-fried laughs

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
Photograph: geogphotos/Alamy

Dubbed “Milkman meets Derry Girls”, Michelle Gallen’s debut novel explores the legacy of the Troubles in a divided border town, and, like Anna Burns’s book and the sitcom, offers a young female perspective on a life overshadowed by violence, laced with black humour amid the ruins. Milkman, from which Big Girl, Small Town’s epigraph is taken, was extremely funny, something many critics failed to convey in all those column inches bemoaning its apparent difficulty, and so is this novel. Written far more conventionally but similarly immersive, it has been set up to have broad commercial appeal.

It’s hard to write a funny novel, and as a reader even harder to find one, so to say that this book made me laugh out loud several times is no small thing. Our heroine, Majella, works in the local chip shop, A Salt and Battered! It isn’t Aghybogey’s only chipper, but for Majella it might as well be: “Majella had never been inside The Cod Father in her life … and had also never knowingly tasted a Proddie chip.” From behind the counter Majella dispassionately observes her fellow citizens as they drunkenly lurch in from the pub to devour their sausage suppers, the routine barely changing from one day to the next. There’s no romanticism. Marty the chef, Gallen writes, “knew everyone in the town. He knew who was fucking who, who had fucked who and who wanted to fuck who. He knew who was drinking, smoking, swallowing or injecting what, and he often knew where and when. He always had an opinion on the why.”

Pain and trauma lie beneath the jokes. Majella lives at home with her lazy and often nasty alcoholic mother, her father having disappeared when she was a child. She doesn’t know what happened to him but it was something to do with “the Cause” that also led her uncle to accidentally blow himself up. Now Majella’s much-loved grandmother has been brutally murdered, too. There is plenty of gallows humour (“wakes for people killed in explosions usually featured closed coffins, but because the hospital did such a great job of patching Brendy back together … the town had the novelty of a half-open coffin”).

The audiobook is narrated by Derry Girls actor Nicola Coughlan, making this one of the few occasions where I’d opt to hear a novel read aloud – so much of the humour is in the voice. And what a voice: I felt as though I knew Majella intimately by the end. We are told in the blurb that she is autistic, but the only hints in the text are a certain matter of factness and her occasional habit of rocking and flicking her fingers to calm herself down. Majella simply is a young woman with a sex drive and a sense of humour, so much more than a caricature of her disability, and this feels revolutionary. Big Girl, Small Town is a darkly hilarious novel about small-town life, which manages to be wildly entertaining despite being mostly set in a chip shop – a fine place in which to loiter with such a filthy, funny, clever companion.

• Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen is published by John Murray (RRP £14.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15.