The big girl is Majella O'Neill; the small town, Ashybogey, Northern Ireland. Though both are a bit of a mess, I had so fallen for them by the end of Michelle Gallen's debut novel that I could hardly stand to leave them behind.
As a heroine, Majella is a rare bird: fat, deeply antisocial except for interactions at the fry shop where she works and occasional casual sex; a little on the autistic side; stoic in the face of everything she can't stand about the world.
Which is a lot. "Big Girl, Small Town" opens with an excerpt from the list of things Majella dislikes, 97 in total, with subcategories under each, then follows her life for a week in short vignettes so labeled: "10:30 p.m., Item 34.3: Fighting: Pretending not to fight"; "11:11 a.m., Item 16.2: Booze: Other people's hangovers."
Sometimes the labels come from her "good list" — "Eating: Fish and chips," "Sex," and "Dallas." (The adventures of the Ewings on DVD are Majella's main source of solace and wisdom.) These subheads recall the ones in "Bridget Jones's Diary," and if Majella is the anti-Bridget Jones in every way, I found her just as endearing.
As for Ashybogey, like the hometown of the author in County Tyrone, it is a few miles from the border of the Republic; in 2004, the Troubles continue to shadow the lives of its residents. "It still felt strange to Majella, though it had been five years or more, to walk about Ashybogey without soldiers, or the chance of them. It felt like there was something missing." Something is definitely missing: her Uncle Bobby, blown up years ago; her beloved da, disappeared not long after, and now her granny, beaten to death by an intruder just before the book opens, forcing Majella into an unwelcome spotlight.
The one person who is still around is her mother, Nuala, a once lively, flirtatious woman who has long since given herself over to booze and pain pills, her care and feeding and housekeeping completely on Majella's shoulders.
Most of the book takes place either in the house or in the "chipper," which like most of the businesses in town has a punning moniker: A Salt and Battered!, exclamation point included. (Its main competition: The Cod Father.) She works with Marty, a married man she occasionally has sex with in the backroom, and young Johann-Paul, whom "she hadn't had a ride off" — yet.
Among her regulars are Jimmy Nine Pints, Hairy Feely, Strawberry Donnelley, and the Logue sisters: Arlene, Darlene, Jolene, and her wee cub. The sounds, smells, tastes and inexorable rhythms of the chipper are evoked with a hypnotic power that submerges the seemingly bigger plotlines — grandmother's death, the will, the missing family members — which seems to be just the way it works for Majella.
As in Anna Burns' "Milkman," which provides the epigraph for "Big Girl, Small Town," the Irish dialect is completely entrancing. Because I listened to "Milkman" in audio, I guessed the meanings of words in context — this time, I stopped to look up "boking" and "hoking" and "stocious" and "cleastered," which added to my enjoyment.
However, the audiobook of "Big Girl, Small Town" is read by Nicola Coughlan, an actress from the great "Derry Girls" sitcom. Since I kind of doubt there will be a sequel to give me more Majella, I've — as she would say — a mind tae give it a go.
University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead" and host of the Weekly Reader podcast. Visit her at marionwinik.com.
Big Girl, Small Town
By: Michelle Gallen.
Publisher: Algonquin, 320 pages, $16.95.