Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen is published by John Murray Press. Described by Roddy Doyle as ‘vital, bang-on, and seriously funny’, I think it’s fairly safe to say that if you’re a Derry Girls fan this might be just what you’re missing right now.
Set in Tyrone in the summer of 1994, Factory Girls introduces us to Maeve Murray. She has just sat her final school exams and has plans, big plans, for her future. After an emotional few years, Maeve plans to leave Northern Ireland and head for London. With her sights set on becoming a journalist, she has a conditional place in college but she needs her results before she can finally be accepted. With 74-days to results day Maeve is considering the summer ahead as she takes up work in the local shirt-making factory. The plan is to save as much as possible for the year ahead but to also enjoy her summer with her friends Aoife and Caroline. Maeve can’t wait to get away from the chaos of home and when an opportunity arises to rent a small flat, she jumps at the chance, persuading Caroline to move in with her. Independence is a driving force for Maeve but she also is looking to escape a dark shadow that is a constant over the family home since her sister Deirdre died.
Littered through every chapter are cultural references like food and music that really put the reader in a time and a place. Anyone remember when pasta arrived in their home for the first time?
‘Pasta had only arrived in the town when Maeve was thirteen. Her Auntie Mary’d told her mam that cooking pasta was dead easy – you just boiled it like spuds. So Maeve’s mam’d always cooked their pasta as long and hard as a pot of potatoes. Until Maeve’d learned how to cook pasta in school she’d no idea that pasta wasn’t supposed to be a sticky pile of porridge-coloured worms on the cusp of disintegration.’
Maeve knows that her new boss Andy Strawbridge has a reputation for the ladies so she is well-prepared for his innuendos and smart remarks. In her interview ‘he sat licking her with his eyes’ and, although he had ‘a snotty English accent’, something stirred deep within her.
‘Maeve was well used to bucks his age gawping at her down the town, eyeing her up in pubs. But most fellas that deep into their thirties were fat and filthy. Andy was in great shape. And he knew it.’
Maeve Murray has a filthy mind and a filthy mouth to go with it. She takes no bull from anyone and shows no fear. Growing up in the Troubles forced her to be able to stand-up for herself and her friends. She uses her cocky attitude as a defence mechanism and Michelle Gallen really brings her to life with brilliant descriptions of her provocative image and her smart and witty dialogue. Maeve has seen a lot in her eighteen years and in the summer of 1994 a spate of paramilitary activities has the community on high alert. British soldiers on the streets, Orange parades and Republican campaigns give rise to a city living on the edge.
The shirt factory was a workplace that incorporated employees from all sides of the religious divide so, when Maeve and her crew started working there, they were taken aback by the atmosphere. Some days everyone got along but on others tempers frayed. Summer 1994 the World Cup was taking place, an exciting time for the Irish and a passion for the game united folk across all borders for a brief time. (A ceasefire was enacted later that summer which held for approximately eighteen months). During all this time Maeve lived her best life, working all week, partying all weekend, tentatively looking for love but also slow to commit.
Factory Girls is, as the name suggests, a tale about life on a factory floor and the shenanigans of a bunch of eighteen-year-olds on the cusp of adulthood. It is written as a countdown to Maeve’s exam results, adding a sense of urgency and desperation to the story. It is hilariously funny from the opening pages right through to the end but Michelle Gallen has also incorporated some very relevant societal themes throughout. Sectarianism, suspicion, violence, poverty, class, religion and so much more add to the authenticity of a novel that excellently portrays life for the ordinary person caught up in an extraordinary situation. Learning to live with the daily horrors by invoking humour at every turn is the norm for many families. Dark banter and a cheeky attitude go a long way to helping folk survive another day and it truly is captured superbly by Michelle Gallen.
Raw, emotive, provocative and so funny, Maeve Murray is iconic, a symbol of a place and time. I feel very privileged to have relived the summer of 1994 through the eyes of such a sassy and saucy young woman.
“The novel invites the reader to consider with Maeve the terrible consequences of focusing on minor differences in the workplace, sport and society instead of celebrating diversity and uniting to strengthen common needs.” – Michelle Gallen
(c) Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)
Order your copy online here.