There's a touch of the difficult second album syndrome to EM Reapy's Skin. Her debut, Red Dirt, was a gripping, beautifully written novel that charted the lives of young Irish immigrants in Australia.
The book deservedly won best newcomer at the Irish Book Awards in 2016, and Reapy won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature the following year. Her short fiction has been widely published, including a Hennessy shortlisting and inclusion in Sinéad Gleeson’s seminal anthology of Irish female writers The Long Gaze Back.
Reapy, from Mayo, has a lot to live up to with her second novel, and the book doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. A slack structure is part of the problem. The 12 titled chapters fall somewhere between interconnected stories and novel, an issue that is exacerbated by the changing locations. Some chapters – Laundry and Bridge – are too slight to feel like stories. Others, such as the penultimate chapter, Skin, work as vivid pieces in their own right but don’t quite fit with the overall narrative arc, which follows an Irish woman in her late 20s as she struggles to deal with binge-eating and low self-esteem.
Natalie is a teacher from Mayo who decides to go travelling after the break-up of a relationship. In the opening chapter, Sunset Kid, set in backpacker haven Bali, we first meet Natalie as a mosquito-riddled traveller struggling with life in a warm climate. Most of her thoughts and interactions are focused on her weight, her binge-eating and her desperate insecurities about her body. Though Reapy sets the scene well – as in her debut, she is excellent on writing foreign locations and cultures – Natalie’s obsession with food and weight hampers her attempts to embrace backpacker life.
Some sparkling scenes, particularly an edgy encounter with an older French man, get lost amid the repetition and neurosis about food and her body. By the start of the second chapter, it is a breath of fresh air to find ourselves in a new location, Darwin, though Natalie’s short staccato interior voice remains wearyingly the same: “My skin feels tight. I’ll probably have to talk to them all. I don’t have many conversational ideas. What if things fall into awkward silences?”
It is clear as Natalie progresses throughout the book, over the course of maybe a year or so, that each chapter sees her get a little more confident and less self-obsessed. The bingeing stops, and to a lesser extent the self-berating. This interior journey is mirrored with the literal one, which sees her travel not just to Bali and Australia but also to Peru, Amsterdam and between Dublin and Mayo when in Ireland. Reapy succeeds in making each of these places come to life.
In Bali: “Something burns. Sizzles. A slaughtered chicken. Its limp yellow foot dangles from a grill. Black meatsmoke.” In Darwin: “It’s so oppressively humid, it’s as though some invisible animal is breathing all over me.”
In the early chapters, an occasional wry comment helps to break up the self-loathing. A Balinese street vendor’s pestering is related: “Anything I want? If I knew that, I probably wouldn’t be here.” Elsewhere, she calls herself out on her wallowing: “Years ago, generations ago, I’d be a mother of eight by now, probably. I wouldn’t have time to be solipsistic.”
Rooting for Natalie
As the book moves along, the reader will come to root for Natalie. Reapy is good at writing interesting, believable predicaments – a poet who overstays his welcome in her granny’s house in Mayo, a bully-boy trainer in the gym, a date with a lepidopterist, or Natalie’s wacky spin classes, which blend exercise with imaginative educational tours.
Drug taking and an almost-happy-ending massage in Peru are particular highlights. Flashes of the humour of Red Dirt come through as the author nails the Inca Trail from an Irish woman’s perspective: “The shower is the highlight of my trek.”
Overall, however, Skin doesn’t have the sharpness of its predecessor, nor does it quite measure up to Mona Awad’s similar debut, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. In Skin there is a slightly formulaic feel to the mentors Natalie meets along the way (her aunt Dolores, trainer Andrea, her friend Lawrence in Wellington) and the way they impart their advice and psychological insights in chunks of dialogue.
Where the book succeeds is in Reapy’s depiction of the backpacker life, from the lads getting off with each other while Natalie tries to sleep, to the shocking, visceral image of a dead whale on a beach in Peru. The book’s takeaway is that travelling has made its heroine a stronger person, or as Natalie puts it in her own distinctive way: “‘Travel forced me to be my own friend because it was too fucking lonely not to be.’ ”