Skin by EM Reapy: Struggling with the sense of not belonging, home or away
Head of Zeus, hardback, 304 pages, €15.75
EM Reapy's 2016 debut novel, Red Dirt, was a blisteringly original take on the lives of young Irish emigrants working on farms in the Australian outback. It won a host of accolades, including an Irish Book Award and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and immediately established Reapy in the front rank of new home-grown writers, rightly so. Her prose was visceral; the landscape luminously alive; the undercurrent of menace beautifully handled. The whole thing was unsettling, brilliant, exciting.
Suffice to say that calling her follow-up hotly anticipated is a serious understatement. Like its predecessor, this one also draws on the author's own experience as an emigrant and traveller, at least in part, though in subject matter it couldn't be more different.
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From the first page, it's obvious that the reader is in good hands. "Stalled traffic has snarly, wolf-like energy," observes the young narrator as she stumbles through the crowded, humid streets of Bali, breathing through her mouth to avoid the "open sewer stench" of a market piled with rotting fruit and swarming with flies.
Natalie has had enough of "the stinking, deafening, teeming life of it", though an acquaintance she meets in her boarding house chides her for this "usual Westerner first time in the Third World story".
Natalie has left behind her life in Ireland, where she confesses that she "felt like an alien. Like I was living an out of body experience daily". She's ticked off all the obligatory life boxes - passed her exams, landed a job, got a boyfriend - without satisfaction. "Tried to figure out my goal in life," as she puts it pithily. "Couldn't." She just knows that she doesn't want the kids and house that seems to fulfil everyone else, and sets to wondering if travelling will clear her head. It's no spoiler to say that it doesn't. She's just as miserable in a hotter climate, still "full of self-loathing and sugary food... wishing I didn't exist".
The early chapters of Skin capture vividly the alienation of being adrift in a foreign place, unable to assess situations. Is the middle-aged Frenchman she meets at the bookshop being kind when he invites her out to dinner, or is he a lecherous predator? Why is the waitress always sniggering? It makes the reader feel as disoriented as Natalie, which is a great place to start any story, wrong-footed, estranged.
A brief interlude in Australia feels more familiar from Reapy's first novel, peopled as it is with young emigrants drinking too much, earning money with piecemeal work, rootless. The dialogue is naturalistic, and feels totally authentic. That's a rarer skill than it should be. The best plotters and stylists all too frequently fall down when it comes to conversation.
Back home, Natalie settles into routine again, living with her granny in the west of Ireland, and working in a leisure centre.
There's an amusing episode when she invites a vague, unemployed poet to stay in her house and he won't leave, and she doesn't know how to get rid of him. She then drifts back to Dublin, and tries internet dating, whose vagaries lead her to a fleeting hook-up with a man who loves collecting butterflies so much that it makes him cry. The author does a light and confident line in comedy to complement the seriousness. Soon Natalie is on the move again, this time to Peru with a flatmate who's recently split from her long-term boyfriend.
She takes ayahuasca and sees the oneness of the universe and has a deep conversation about the meaning of life with a cactus.
Despite everything, unease is never far from the surface as, tracking down her missing laundry, she realises that the clothes are being washed in a factory by desperately poor children under the control of a well-dressed man who screams at them and calls them "idiotas". "Should we ring the cops?" Natalie frets ineffectually. "Or do something?"
"What could we do?" her friend shrugs.
Throughout, she struggles with body image and other people's perception of her, binge eating to numb her pain, avoiding serious relationships. There is less narrative urgency than in Red Dirt, as if the apprentice author is using up her travel anecdotes in order to move on to her own next chapter as a writer. Sometimes it feels more like a loose collection of short stories rather than a novel, and none of them quite match that first chapter in Bali.
Staying far from home might have led to something more intense and dangerous, in the tradition of The Beach. The theme of physical discomfort is not explored as acutely as the advance publicity for this book might have suggested, but it's never more present than in that humidity. Instead, Natalie just returns to home turf, and, in a curiously homely shift of emphasis, starts to teach spin classes, finally discovering a sense of purpose.
EM Reapy has only written two novels, so it's hard to know which is more representative of her work. Is Skin a diversion from the longer road begun by Red Dirt, or was Red Dirt the outlier, and this an indication of the path she wants to pursue? Until the third novel appears, it will be impossible to know; but one must hope it's the former. Skin is good, but there are plenty of books covering similar ground. No one else could have written Red Dirt.