Book review: Not backpacking in Oz

Red Dirt by EM Reapy (Head of Zeus)

EM Reapy.

EM Reapy.

THERE ARE three central characters in EM Reapy's debut novel Red Dirt: Fiona, who has fled Ireland to extricate herself from an abusive relationship; Hopper, who is trying to find himself by taking acid and being left for dead in the outback; and Murph, whose family back home have been broken by the great construction crash of 2008.

This novel, published by Head of Zeus, and which recently won the Irish Book Awards Newcomer of the Year Award is not a hopeful coming of age story, where, at the end, everyone realises who they really are, give up “skulling” cheap Australian wine, gets a mortgage on a semi-detached, and discover, after almost 400 years of capitalist bubbles inflating and bursting, Enda Kenny has singlehandedly succeeded in magicking away boom and bust economics.

The story Reapy tells is darker, more grown up, than anything you are likely to hear from your average economist or read in the Construction Industry Federation’s next press release, but there is also hope, and humanity, but they are not easily maintained during a story told with savage honesty.

From page one we discover how these young Irish deal with the problem of finding that their month-to-month spending - which enables them to eat semi-regularly and keep themselves supplied with recreational pharmaceuticals and alcohol - is unsustainable: “Shane’s mam bailed him out once with a grand but we blew it in a weekend with Thai girls and a two day session in a plastic Irish pub run by the biggest scumbags you could ever expect to find in northside Dublin.”

At times, Reapy’s shocking prose calls to mind Henry Miller or Louis Ferdinand Celine. She describes the Australian sky as being “stars bursting out of like spores from a flower like cum onto a London girl’s stomach like joy out of that perfect moment of ecstasy…”

Fiona is forced temporarily into prostitution, which for her drags up a fond memory of “that old lady from your hometown, with a hairy mouth and sagged flesh. She hung out in chippers…The midfielder from your year who paid her for sex in the shopping centre car park and bragged to everyone after about how gross it was.”

In the story’s denouement her new friend Hopper has a job – to deliver “a bag of MDMA caps from a motorcycle gang in Adelaide” to “a town in the middle of nowhere”. It sounds risky. And it is.

Towards the end, a dispute between Hopper and Fiona’s other new friend Murph turns physical and Fiona is collateral damage. Murph’s swinging shoulder knocks Fiona flying and her head hits the footpath. Hopper and Murphy think she is dead. After a bit she starts breathing again, and comes around. And they all live happily ever after. Well, I’m not sure they do...

As Reapy’s manic narrator says: “this isn’t backpacking…isn’t finding yourself, exploring new cultures, being breathless with wonder.” It’s so much more than that.

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