Friday 15 December 2017

'The Beach' for Irish expats in Australia

Fiction: Red Dirt, EM Reapy, Head of Zeus, pbk, 320 pages, €16.99

Blurred lines: EM Reapy switches between narratives and tenses
Blurred lines: EM Reapy switches between narratives and tenses
Red Dirt by E.M. Reapy.

Eilis O'Hanlon

There are two novels called Red Dirt. One of them is about tennis. One of them isn't. This is the one that isn't. It would be wise not to get them confused. This debut novel by a young Irish author is instead about expats of her own generation who head to Australia in the wake of the financial crash to work on remote farms where there's little to do except drink, take drugs, have casual sex and talk, all of which they do with a desperate energy.

As the book begins, they're heading inland to pick mangoes somewhere in the outback. The experience of Irish migrants in England and America has been exhaustively documented, but this feels immediately new, yanking these characters out of their small, familiar world and dropping them into a vast new one which not only doesn't care about its human inhabitants, but often seems hostile to their presence.

EM Reapy has spent time out there too, and vividly conveys the pitiless landscape, with its insects, dust, heat. That disorienting sense of place soon becomes as overwhelming for the reader as the characters, though the homesickness remains universal. Opening a bag of Tayto crisps, one notes: "I sniffed inside and smelt teenage discos, lunchtimes during Junior Cert, buses home from galas, hangover porn days."

Reapy has a dazzling ear for dialogue. She writes the way people actually talk, capturing the flowing, spiky banter they have with one another in these situations. They're not prettified, idealised; they swear constantly, do questionable things - Hooper is a small-time drugs courier, and the others are all on the run to some extent from mistakes they've made or people they've let down - but they're not bad souls.

"I only want to have a good time here in Australia," Hooper says pathetically near the end, when it seems that he's finally gone too far to save himself. "That's the only thing I wanted."

They're not on a spiritual quest to 'find' meaning, much less themselves. They're just ordinary young people looking to have fun and make some money, and occasional moments of tenderness only add to the sympathy. When Shane first hears Fiona talking, he notes: "I got pangs. She spoke like home and looked like home even though she had a good tan. She'd that Irish girl thing, the friendliness radiating off her."

The most effective parts of the book are the first and last sections, which are both told from a male perspective. Reapy is particularly effective when writing about men. The middle section, which is left to Fiona, is possibly less effective, but it's indicative of Reapy's ambition that she's willing to keep taking risks, switching between first and third, and even second person narration, and past and present tense.

Her narrative voice is as raw and unsentimental as theirs, never more so than when Hooper and Fiona are separately forced to go walkabout in the bush. These are people who don't expect help from anyone, and the world duly doesn't offer any. Their fate is to be brought to the end of their tethers and then forced to keep going anyway.

This book does for young Irish expats in Australia what Alex Garland's The Beach did for backpackers in Thailand and Dermot Healy's Sudden Times did for a different generation of Irish labourers in London. It may ultimately lack some narrative drive, having more of an episodic feel - as might be expected from someone best known before now as an accomplished short story writer - but it's a confident and distinctive debut, and one would have to be dead to the thrill of fiction not to be hugely excited about what its author will do next.

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