Book Reviews

Review: Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen

Image: Book cover on a black background

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In the summer of 1994, Maeve Murray dreams of starting a new life beyond the Northern Irish town where she has grown up amidst the Troubles. Maeve takes a summer job in a shirt factory where she’ll have to navigate tensions of the Catholic and Protestant workforce all while keeping clear of leering English boss Andy Strawbridge. What is supposed to be a simple summer job turns into a story about facing adulthood, navigating conflict, and figuring out what justice means in a workforce.

Understanding the sociopolitical landscape of Northern Ireland in the 1990s is crucial for reading Factory Girls. While Gallen works to ease readers into Maeve’s specific situation, it is imperative to have a basic understanding of the Troubles. If you don’t know why Catholic Maeve Murrary isn’t keen on working in a factory with Prodestants, the crux of this story will be lost on you.

Main character Maeve Murray is feisty and driven. Gallen rights with powerful force about Maeve’s anger over the situation of the Troubles, but also takes the time to address the nuances of the transition between childhood and adulthood. Her friendships are shifting, her role in the family is changing, and her relationship to grief looks different as she moves out of her childhood home. Maeve is a character that’s really in transit throughout the entire novel. Readers feel the anticipation building as each chapter reminds them of how many days are left until exam results come through.

This book explores the nuances of female friendships. Maeve lives with Caroline and the duo are close with a wealthy girl named Aofie who also works at the factory. Maeve and Aofie have tense conversations about their different political views and how the Troubles have impacted them. Aofie is upper middle class and hails from the Republic of Ireland, so her struggles in this context don’t mirror Maeve’s working class experiences and this impacts their friendship.

I enjoyed how this novel handled Maeve’s struggles. She’s a character with a quick wit and powerful voice, so there’s quite a few humorous moments. But the seriousness of her situation never feels lost for the sake of a joke, and Maeve is unapologetic with her anger and attitude.

There’s a lot of interesting perspective on how the Troubles impacted day-to-day life. The scenes of Maeve working in the factory showed how present tensions between different groups were, and also how news from outside the factory could impact regular life. The nature of the interactions between the Catholic and Protestant characters was constantly in flux dependent on political news and workplace conditions.

There were moments where I wished this novel lingered more. Gallen includes some hints about what happened with. Maeve’s late sister, Deidre, and how her death impacted the family dynamic. I was hoping to see more of the Murray family and have the opportunity to really dissect those relationships. Still, this historically rooted novel is both a funny and sad look at how hard it is to grow up and move on, and also how the world around us impacts our relationships and experiences.

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