Red Dirt by EM Reapy review: gripping yarn of Irish drifters in Oz
Impressive debut novel moves from humour to poignancy with ease
EM Reapy: novel showcases her skill with different perspectives
Head of Zeus
There are certain novels associated with backpacking and the immigrant experience. In the common rooms of hostels around the world, there are so many dog-eared copies of Shantaram, The Beach, On the Road, The Alchemist.
At the heart of such books is a journey, both literal and metaphorical. Elizabeth Reapy’s debut novel, Red Dirt, takes the modern Irish immigrant experience and turns it into a thought-provoking, vibrant novel that grips the reader from the start.
It is highly impressive writing from a first-time novelist, a story that moves from humour to poignancy with ease as it focuses on three young Irish drifters, each hoping for redemption in a parched Australian landscape.
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Reapy has an MA in creative writing from Queen’s University, Belfast. She was listed for the Pen International: New Voices Award and recently featured in Sinéad Gleeson’s anthology of Irish women writers, The Long Gaze Back.
She lives in Mayo but has travelled extensively in Australia, which informs an array of backdrops in her novel. Mango farms in the wilderness, hellish eternal house parties in Sydney, racist redneck villages – as her characters bounce from one location to the next, often escaping from self-inflicted dangers, the country and its treatment of immigrants are vividly captured.
The novel is structured in three parts – Me, You, Them – and Reapy takes risks with her narrative, showing her skill at different perspectives.
Me is in the first person voice of Murph, a canny Mayo man who emigrated after his family’s property business went bust. Funny and intelligent, Murph is leaving Perth for a mango farm in the outback with his friend Shane after their plans to work the mines fall through: “We’d to do an alcohol and drug test after the interview, and I have to say, we failed it magnificently.”
HedonismThe reader lands straight into their hostel life of drink, drugs and women; a stream of hedonism that distracts from their aimlessness. But the old country still calls: “McCambridge’s dosed in real butter, purple Snacks, Supermac’s chicken burgers, Club Orange. The rain. The awful bollocking rain.” A great opener follows Murph and Shane as they take a nine-hour road trip to the mango farm with troubled Donegal man John Anthony and lunatic Hopper, who offers the lads acid in a bid to make friends. Running over a kangaroo en route is the first of many heart-in-mouth moments of a book packed with action.
Homesickness hits Murph at the farm “about the size of Leitrim” when he meets fellow county woman Fiona: “I got pangs. She’d that Irish girl thing, the friendliness radiating off her.” Murph’s voice is modern and irreverent, with flashes of poetry: “Milk bottle skinned, Qantas smelling, sad eyed cailín. She could have been a million Irish girls with her splash of freckles and highlighted hair.”
Murph, Shane and Fiona form a lovely trio, with Reapy capturing the intensity of bonds forged while travelling, the snap decisions her characters are forced to make about people. Danger is ever-present, from the malevolence of John Anthony at the mango farm to Fiona’s incredible story of survival that makes up the longest section of the book, You.
Reapy switches easily to the second person, a good choice for lost soul Fiona, struggling to escape past demons of an abusive relationship back home, while making awful choices in the process to try and earn her keep. Each of the protagonists of Red Dirt is disenfranchised, but Fiona’s willingness to put herself in danger at the Wolf Creek-esque Fletcher farm makes for a page-turning section as Reapy ramps up the drama: “You see your phone signal is gone, this far into the countryside.”
Fiona’s escape is both outrageous and believable as she lives off bugs and larvae, survives a snake attack and is found half-dead by a hippie mushroom forager.
Helping Fiona recover at her cottage, Dorothy is the first of many saviours. The kindness of strangers is a recurring theme, from the Indian shopkeeper Arav, to straight-talking Dublin man Tommo, to poor Norman, the closet homosexual older Australian who falls for the book’s third narrator, Hopper.
It is to Reapy’s credit that she can turn a side character like Hopper into an engaging voice in the final section. Eschewing the obvious Us, a reunion of Fiona and Shane, the author instead delivers a poverty-stricken drug addict trying to forget his ex-girlfriend, and the beloved baby that wasn’t his: “It was awful hard to turn love off. It wasn’t like a tap.”
As Hopper’s numerous stupid decisions threaten to lose the reader’s sympathy, the novel reunites the three leads for a clever closing that stays true to its characters. Red Dirt showcases an Australia where the Irish have come for refuge, trying to outrun their problems back home: “And someone at the party shouts, ‘To Bertie . . . A toast to the immigrants . . . Keep her fucking lit.’”