‘Red Dirt captures something very important about what Ireland has done to its young’
Head of Zeus publisher Neil Belton on why he loved EM Reapy’s debut about young Irish cruelly cast out from the Eden of the boom and losing their way in Australia
Neil Belton: The very writers now hailed as evidence of a renaissance in Irish fiction couldn’t get published in Dublin or London less than a decade ago. I’m glad Elizabeth Reapy has joined them
Nothing is easier for an editor than finding reasons not to publish a novel. Too quiet; too small; not commercial enough; won’t sell outside outside Ireland (or the UK). Stock phrases like these are heard every week around the meeting tables of publishing houses. (I remember the note sent by a Random House executive forbidding me from buying Eugene McCabe’s masterpiece Death and Nightingales: “a small poet’s novel”.) The gatekeepers who utter them are often proved right, especially when the object of their scorn is a first novel that isn’t built around a murder, an unreliable narrator, an unexplained disappearance and a sceptical policewoman.
For years it has been easier for stories of vanished suspicious women to pass through the eye of the needle than any book that has a distinctive voice and tries to measure up to the ordinary, tragic complexity of life. These are novels that have the slick finish of the script for the movie they aspire to become: “grip lit”, perhaps the only space left in adult society where it’s socially acceptable to refer to grown women as “girls” and which the reader forgets once the last plot twist has been unfolded.
EM Reapy’s Red Dirt has a killing in it, a disappearance, a woman in danger and an air of menace, but it’s an altogether more serious piece of work than these elements might suggest. It isn’t trying to mimic other versions of the stories we’ve always told each other. And stories of emigration, the leaving of home and the difficulty of returning there, the crossing of a frontier and the discovery of oneself and of moral responsibility in the wilderness, are as old as literature: the Odyssey, Crusoe, Huckleberry Finn, Heart of Darkness.
Red Dirt comes from a generation of young Irish people who thought they could stay at home more or less happily if they wanted to and then had that promise ripped away from them
Red Dirt comes from a generation of young Irish people who thought they could stay at home more or less happily if they wanted to – perhaps the first generation in modern Irish history to have felt secure in the knowledge of continuing prosperity and available work, and then had that promise ripped away from them. Its characters find themselves in the vast landscape of Australia, its impossible distances, harsh sun, rich farmland and arid deserts. I liked its swiftness and immediacy. It seized hold of me in quite other ways than a novel about a crime might, all the more since the narrative contains crimes and allows for the fact that some are never punished or even recognised. I liked her ear for speech and the fact that Australia doesn’t overwhelm the action with lurid colour.
Written from the point of view of three characters, the book drew me quickly into a world of young people cut loose from their moorings, living in hostels or shared dormitories, with access to unlimited cheap wine and beer and drugs. They stumble into situations they can’t control, as you do when you’re young and far from home: a long car journey that turns into a bad trip in every sense, a violent confrontation, callous indifference to the fate of a person thrown in their way by the drift of parties and casual work. A young woman comes close to sexual slavery.
When I was young the drugs were harder and the choices seemed more lethal – by the time I was 21 several of my schoolmates and neighbours were dead or in jail, lured by heroin or the glamour of paramilitary commitment. But we had not grown up feeling that good times were ours as of right, and we knew that England or America could lie on the other side even of a university degree. Reapy’s characters are more cruelly robbed of hope, cast out from the Eden of the boom. They could have been my friends’ children, given a few bad throws of the dice. Red Dirt is not trying to be the great literary expression of a generation, but it does capture something very important about what Ireland has done to its young people.
I couldn’t get the book out of my head, and luckily the colleagues around that editorial table felt the same (unusually, they had all read it)
I couldn’t get the book out of my head, and luckily the colleagues around that editorial table felt the same (unusually, they had all read it). I still don’t know or care if it had been turned down by other publishers before reaching me. If it was, it becomes one of a distinguished list of recent Irish novels. The very writers now hailed as evidence of a renaissance in Irish fiction couldn’t get published in Dublin or London less than a decade ago. I’m glad Elizabeth Reapy has joined them.
Neil Belton is publishing director of Head of Zeus in London.
Red Dirt by EM Reapy is the Irish Times Book Club selection for May 2017. This debut novel won Newcomer of the Year at the 2016 Irish Book Awards and was shortlisted for the 2017 Kate O’Brien Award. Over the next four weeks, we shall run a series of articles by the author and fellow writers on Red Dirt, culminating in a public interview with Elizabeth Reapy by Laura Slattery of The Irish Times at The Irish Writers Centre in Parnell Square, Dublin 1, on Thursday, May 25th, at 7.30pm, which will be uploaded as a podcast on May 31st on irishtimes.com