Greetings Earthlings! 🙂
This week I’d like to discuss a book featuring an autistic protagonist ‘Big Girl, Small Town‘ by Michelle Gallen.
So what’s the book about?
The book details a week in the life of Majella O’ Neil, a 27 year old woman with undiagnosed autism living in Aghybogey, a border town in Northern Ireland in the post Troubles era. She lives a life of strict routine with her alcoholic mother- she eats the same dinner every day, wears the same clothes, and watches reruns of Dallas every night after she finishes work in the local chipper (for my international readers- a chipper is a fast food establishment that sells ‘chips’ or fries in addition to an array of other deep fried meats and products). You can check out an audio excerpt from the book here narrated by Nicola Coughlan of Derry Girls and Bridgerton fame:
So how did I find it’s depiction of autism?
As it transpires, the author Michelle Gallen is not neurotypical- she experienced a catastrophic brain injury in her twenties from auto-immune encephalitis which has left her with many deficits and sensory sensitivities that parallel with autistic symptoms. In interviews she appears to describe autistic people almost separate from herself so she doesn’t appear to identify as autistic, but her doctors reckon that she was always neurodiverse as she has had struggles with social situations and understanding her peers growing up.
With a neurodiverse voice at the helm of this book, we’re given a refreshing slant on the classic literary autist. In an interesting twist, each new scene is preceded by Majella’s numbered list items of likes and dislikes (mainly dislikes) relating to the events you are about to read about (e.g. ‘Item 4.1: Fluorescent lights’) which really gives us an insight into the array of bugbears that autists deal with on a day to day basis. The book details many classic signs of autism such as stimming (she’s really into finger flicking and sucking her fingers), sensory issues, impulsivity, OCD, mind blindness, the need for routine and resistance to change, but we also see a lot of the sides of autism that are often ignored such as masking. The book describes how Majella drinks in the people around her and has learned/auto responses to certain questions to navigate conversations- one of the most prominent traits for autistic women. Majella is also just a girl working in a chipper, content with her lot which is a nice deviation from the classic genius narrative 😛
One of the most striking things about the book is that the author tackles taboo issues such as sex, periods and puberty head on- issues that can be very challenging for autists. In fact, sex is one of Majella’s favourite things, something that is regularly shied away from when it comes to autism. As autists struggle so much on a social and sensory level, most people seem to think that we’re asexual robots, but like autism, autistic sexuality is a spectrum ranging from asexuality to hypersexuality, so it’s nice to see this stigma challenged.
On the other hand, once again we are presented with a book that is marketed as being about an autistic character, yet it does not tackle the issue head on or even mention the elephant in the room in passing (as in The Rosie Project). Much of the promotional material for the book describes Majella as autistic, but it appears that the author accidentally created the portrait of an autistic woman based on her own experiences of neurodiversity:
“I kept being asked this question, What’s wrong with Majella? I knew she was kind of unusual … I decided to read up a bit more on the female presentation of autism, and when I started even the most basic reading of it, I was like, Oh my God. OK. I realized that I created a portrait of an autistic woman, because these types of behaviors were incredibly familiar to me. What’s wrong with Majella? There’s nothing wrong with Majella. She’s an undiagnosed autistic woman. And she’s fascinating.”
On a personal level as a book lover, I was not a fan of the novel (I was very disappointed as the reviews were glowing). I really struggled to get into it and were it not for the benefit of this post for my loyal readers, I would have given up on it after the first 30 pages. I found it needlessly vulgar with a difficult to follow phonetic writing style (to convey the nuances of the Northern Irish accent). Indeed, post-Troubles Northern Ireland can be a very rough and vulgar place at times, but this could have been conveyed just as viscerally with a more traditional, non-profane style of writing. A lot of the sub-plots felt underdeveloped and unfinished at the books close, and the day to day monotony of Majella’s routine and work life wasn’t exactly a thrill a minute- there were times I felt like half the words in the book were food orders from her job in the chipper… Despite the fact that Majella thinks a lot like me, I found it really hard to like her and identify with her, and I just didn’t get that same sense of kinship as I did from reading about Allegra in Cecelia Ahern’s ‘Freckles‘.
All in all, this book provides a good insight into the thinkings of a neurodiverse mind, but it’s not a story that I would recommend.
Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂
Have a lovely weekend!