Algonquin | November 29, 2022
War stories have a long tradition of centering the experiences of men. Take last year’s major film release, Belfast, a Troubles story told in the classic fashion: men and violence to the front; women to the back, please, to support the men and suffer in silence.
In Factory Girls, however, Michelle Gallen breathes new life into Troubles literature, presenting a fresh, modern view of 1994 revolutionary Ireland. Gallen, who grew up in near the border of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, grapples with local violence but also sexism, abortion, desire, body image, mental health, and generational trauma, following three young women who take summer jobs in a shirt factory before they head off to university. In doing so, she weaves a story of small-town Northern Ireland that stretches far beyond its borders.
The story’s narrator comes alive in the opening line: “Maeve Murray was just eighteen years old when she first met Andy Strawbridge but she knew he was a fucker the minute she laid eyes on him.” To save for college, Maeve and her two best friends, Aoife and Caroline, decide to get jobs at the local shirt factory, the only employer in their Northern Ireland town.
But the boss has a reputation. “She’d heard stories about him taking his pick of the factory girls, offering them lifts home where he’d park his Jag up some lonely lane so he could get a blowjob from whoever was belted into the front passenger seat.” Things get complicated when Maeve is asked to the boss’s office for an interview. “Andy didn’t touch her CV. Instead, he sat licking her with his eyes.”
The novel’s timeline is set to a ticking clock, building tension as each new workday brings the friends one day closer to the exam results that will confirm their college admissions. “When they come out in August, I’m getting the frig out of this place.” If their exam results are poor, however, they could be stuck in their hometown forever.
In the meantime, Maeve learns to iron one hundred shirts a day. She grows strong from physical labor. Gallen’s descriptions of life in the factory are fascinating, ranging from wage disputes to the way high-quality fabric runs like butter under an iron. “Her body and factory time disappeared as she went into autopilot. She didn’t have to think about the frigging factory or who was working in it when she became a part of it.”
Harassment and conflict are rampant in the factory. One day the boss shows up at Maeve’s ironing board, slips two fingers under her arms and makes “a gentle circular motion that ticked her ribs…she whirled around to face him. Then she realized that her bra was undone.” Here’s what makes Maeve such a credible narrator: in addition to her deliciously sharp tongue, she is full of contradictions: “The sound of the leather chair creaking under his arse did something funny to Maeve’s lady garden.”
While the three young women sew, iron, and drink vodka with orange soda through their last summer together, their cultural critique of 1994 is spot-on. Maeve’s family, we learn, took Coke’s side “in the Coke vs Pepsi war.” Aoife observes one night, “You know, I always think it’s kind of strange…that we live here, in this town, where going to the pub is taking your life in your hands, and yet we’re supposed to care about what size our bums are.”
Finally, in the book’s most intense and deeply moving scene, Maeve and her sister are victims of a school bombing during a dress rehearsal of The Wizard of Oz, a remarkable prelude, perhaps, to the school shootings that have become commonplace in America.
Factory Girls enriches the Troubles narrative with a fierce cast of young women determined to reject the violence of their youth. Even in this deeply divided town, Maeve’s arc bends toward a future that accepts humanity in all its forms. When the Factory Girls leave their little flat overlooking the shirt factory, calling out, “Och, have a lovely evening, dotes,” one really believes they might.