Majella is the queen of coping; she has developed a system of avoiding eye contact, she gladly relies on years-long joke exchanges orchestrated by her customers and coworkers, and she is clear about people explaining idioms and small-town customs to her as a needed relief. She is also coping with the world around her; her uncle “died for the cause”, her IRA-adjacent father disappeared years ago, her mother is lost in a haze of whiskey, and her beloved grandmother has recently been beaten to death.
It isn’t all bombings, beatings, and blackouts- I promise! Majella is a woman surrounded by the ever-present reminders of The Troubles, but she is a woman with a routine of contentment and comfort. The things that she finds comforting may not feel familiar or comforting to her peers or the reader, but Majella is at peace with her place in life. Sure, her drunken mother is bellowing at the bottom of the stairs, but Majella has her comfy duvet, a DVD box-set of Dallas, and a free nightly dinner that comes home with her after her shift at the chip shop.
I need to know more. More about Majella, our narrator and list-maker, but more about Michelle Gallen in general! Her author bio mentions recovering from a debilitating brain injury in her twenties (same girl, same). Gallen describes herself as “non-neurotypical” (quotes for using her exact wording- NOT far casting doubt!) in regards to both the injury and to her overall makeup, and Majella makes great use of self-soothing rituals like rocking and flicking her fingers. In reviews, write-ups, and interviews I have found Gallen, interviewers, and reporters explicitly labeling Majella as autistic, but the term never arrives in or around the book. It’s easy to identify with Majella if her routines and needs feel familiar to you, but I am curious as to what a reader who has not experienced or witnessed these needs, ideas, and behaviors would think of Majella. I love seeing a story with an autistic main character that is not focused on autism and autism alone, but I wish it was bit easier for others to pick up this book and learn a bit more about Majella without having to don a detective’s cap.
When I first sat down to type this review, I was sitting solidly in the “Three Star” camp. The more time I spend reading about Gallen, and the more thought I give to Majella’s experiences, the more I feel for both women and the more I appreciate this book. I think this book suffers from a bit of false advertising; the cover and reviews alike shout about comparisons to the (excellent) TV show Derry Girls, but the overall tone does not match that show at all. They both take place in Northern Ireland, they both have female protagonists, they both are still under the shadow of The Troubles, but similar outsides do not equal similar insides!
Majella is a woman with a routine, and I respect that. She works, she endures, she ignores, but she also enjoys, savors, and-in her own words- fucks. Majella knows who she is and what she wants. The rest of town can either see her as she is or stay the hell out of her way.