A young woman, awaiting her exam scores, works a summer job in a shirt factory in Northern Ireland, while tensions rise both inside and outside the factory walls.
It’s the summer of 1994, and all smart-mouthed Maeve Murray wants are good final exam results so she can earn her ticket out of the wee Northern Irish town she has grown up in during the Troubles. She hopes she will soon be in London studying journalism—away from her crowded home, the silence and sadness surrounding her sister’s death, and most of all, away from the violence of her divided community.
As a first step, Maeve’s taken a job in a shirt factory working alongside Protestants with her best friends. But getting the right exam results is only part of Maeve’s problem—she’s got to survive a tit-for-tat paramilitary campaign, iron 100 shirts an hour all day every day, and deal with the attentions of Handy Andy Strawbridge, her slick and untrustworthy English boss. Then, as the British loyalist marching season raises tensions among the Catholic and Protestant workforce, Maeve realizes something is going on behind the scenes at the factory. What seems to be a great opportunity to earn money turns out to be a crucible in which Maeve faces the test of a lifetime. Seeking justice for herself and her fellow workers may just be Maeve’s one-way ticket out of town.
Bitingly hilarious, clear-eyed, and steeped in the vernacular of its time and place, Factory Girls tackles questions of wealth and power, religion and nationalism, and how young women maintain hope for themselves and the future during divided, violent times.
When I first learned about this book and saw that it was compared to Derry Girls, I was super excited. After watching Derry Girls, I really wanted to learn more about the Troubles and hoped that Factory Girls would offer me that along with a compelling story.
Factory Girls is a novel about a young Catholic woman ready to escape her small town in Northern Ireland that is deeply divided and occupied by paramilitary soldiers. While she awaits her A-levels scores to see if she will be attending uni in London, she gets a job at a local shirt factory with her two friends.
It is hard to pinpoint Factory Girls as either a character-driven or plot-driven story. I think I would say it was firmly a character-driven book, except it feels like the growth or realizations that are required for this type of narrative was missing. But with the lack of events taking place within its pages, I would definitely not call Factory Girls a plot-driven book. What I am left with is a character-driven novel that feels a bit half-baked.
While I was eager to read a coming-of-age story during the Troubles, I found it difficult to get invested in Factory Girls. While the book is from Maeve’s point of view and focuses on her and two friends, I feel like I never really came to know any of them.
Due to its seeming lack of direction and character development, I found Factory Girls to be a bit of a slog, particularly in the middle. At some point, the day-to-day factory work and character interactions became repetitive. I also struggled because I found a majority of this story to be bleak and depressing. Gallen tackles a number of challenging subjects in Factory Girls, like wealth and poverty, religion and nationalism, and political conflict and death. I know that the synopsis says that this is supposed to be funny, but I found little comedy. For me, a bit of lightness and humor would have went a long way in making this story enjoyable. While the ending left me feeling a bit less sad than the rest of the book, I am currently desperate for cheering up after finishing the book.
From what I can tell, Factory Girls was not adapted from its original publication in the U.K. I think it would have been beneficial for the book to be tweaked for American audiences. For example, readers not super familiar with the Troubles or Irish history would benefit from more context and explanation about the conflict as well as clarity about the belligerents involved. I was not familiar with all the acronyms and had to do a lot of background reading to have a full comprehension of what was happening. In addition, conversations are written phonetically, with which I had difficulty. I ended up reading some sentences over quite a few times to understand what was being said. I do not think that this served a real purpose. You could argue that the speech patterns/accents contrasted the characters against each other’s backgrounds, but this was already done and unnecessary. It ultimately just made the book more difficult to read and even slower.
While I did not hate Factory Girls, I just wished it had lived up to its potential. It seemed to lack a fully realized point or message. I needed for the novel to have a strong conclusion in order to endure the somber tone and often melancholic story.
Overall, I thought Factory Girls fell somewhere between a meh and enjoyable read for me. If you like character-driven or sad girl stories, you may enjoy this book. However, Derry Girls it is not.
November 29, 2022
Note: I received a galley of this book from its publisher, Algonquin Books. Regardless, I always provide a fair and honest review.