E. M. Reapy
A group of young Irish migrants leave a man called Hopper for dead on an outback road in Australia. They barely know him; no-one will miss him in their world of hostels, wild nights on cheap wine and grinding work on isolated farms.
In this powerful novel about the discovery of responsibility, three young people – Fiona, Murph and Hopper – flee the collapse of their country's economy. In the heat and endless spaces of Australia they try to escape their past, but impulsive cruelty, shame and guilt drag them down, and it is easy to make terrible choices.
E. M. Reapy reads from Red Dirt in Kenny’s Bookshop, Galway
The three main characters are Irish backpackers in Australia in 2011. They have all left Ireland to escape from their lives and from the recession. They are each in their early twenties, I guess, and all self-destructive, immature, hedonistic and unlikeable. Yes, they all had difficult lives in Ireland, but so did countless other people – this trio, though, didn’t have the skills to cope. Whereas others emigrated to make better lives for themselves, these three – separately – chose different routes, mainly involving copious amounts of drugs and drink. There is little hope for any of them at the beginning of their stories, and little hope for them at the end. There was only one I felt any lasting sympathy for – Hopper – and that was for his upbringing, which brought him to this state of desperation. The other two are products of their upbringing too, but from near the other end of the spectrum. Murph especially had had a privileged life that left him ill-equipped for dealing with troubles now. His father, a builder, made his money during the Celtic Tiger, and lost it in the crash. Murph neatly summed up what happened to many during the good years; he was thinking about his mother:
She left the job when we moved into the new house. It was a five bed, had a Jacuzzi, a bar, a games room and a basketball court just for me, which I only played in once ever with my friends. She acquired her posh accent.
The plot was interesting, although in some places implausible. I didn’t like the story, but I doubt we are intended to. It is an ‘easy’ but uncomfortable read. This is a tale about three people: how they came together and did mainly harm to each other and those around them. They relied for survival on the kindness of strangers – and since most of the people they associated with were partying hard too (in particular, other Irish backpackers), it was good to be reminded that there are strangers out there who are kind. I felt a despair and depression at the end of the book, with no hope of redemption for any of the main characters, certainly not the lads.
On a sentence and paragraph level the writing is superb – really displaying Reapy’s skill for which she has been rightly lauded. I could feel how carefully crafted the words were and can imagine the writer going over and over them until they were just right and yet coming across as raw and immediate. I savoured certain passages, marvelling at their neatness and perfection – there is no ‘beauty of language’ here but certainly a mastery of simplicity. Dialogue is realistic and concise. Description of setting is visual. There is humour and tragedy. Characterisation of the protagonists and secondary characters is very good – each distinct and remaining true.
As a whole, though, the book – as opposed to the story – didn’t quite hang together. It is divided into three sections. In this, I think, it got a little ahead of itself. The first section is written in first person past tense; the second section in second person; the third section in third person limited. In the first section, we meet all the characters, but not all at once; it is essentially Murph’s story. The second section is Fiona’s story on a parallel timeline, but because the first section ends with Murph dropping Fiona outside a hostel, and the second section starts with Fiona being inside a hostel, I thought it was a continuation of her story and was confused until, a long way into it, I realised she hadn’t yet met the others. The third section is also a parallel timeline, giving Hopper’s story. At the very end of the section, the three come together with unhappy consequences.
Fiona’s story is for me the most relatable but least compelling of the three. The second-person narration is normally used to give the reader a connection to the character, but I found it pushed me further away. There were times my heart went out to Fiona, but more often I was irritated with her. She is twenty-four but acts like a self-centred sixteen-year-old. At the end of her section she is at last showing signs of some self-awareness, but this isn’t borne out by what we know of the rest of her story and I think she is destined to make the same mistakes again. Murph is weak and cowardly and is unable to deal with how his life is spiralling out of control. Hopper is a desperately sad character who had much to offer if only the world hadn’t got in the way; he has flashes of insight and uses arson as a form of taking control. It is left to the imagination to wonder how these three fared after the last page.
I’m really looking forward to reading what Elizabeth Reapy does next. I have no doubt that she has a brilliant writing career ahead of her.
Editorial Input & Design
This is obviously the story that Reapy wanted to write, although not necessarily the story I wanted to read. In that, I would make no appeals for changes. I would have offered an opinion that the three different points of view don’t necessarily work, but not with any hope of being listened to as I am sure the author put a great deal of thought into the book’s structure. I would have more strongly suggested pointers to the time line, even if it was simply by a small heading at the start of each section. Someone suggested to me that the confusion was deliberate, but I can’t see that it serves any purpose and just annoyed me as a reader.
Cover: Striking. Brilliantly conceived title.
Internal design: Clear and professionally done.
Book Clubs & Reviews
An excellent book for book clubs, I reckon. In fact, my (Irish) book club read it. They are mainly women ‘of a certain age’ and I wondered how they would react to it, especially as many of them are mothers of young adults (one of whom has a daughter in Australia – ah, what joy it was for her to read about the environment in which her baby is currently residing!). Surprisingly (given the demographic), they all liked it. Discussion was fast, furious and remained on topic. We didn’t have consensus on what was realistic or implausible, nor on the strength of character of the protagonists, nor necessarily on what we liked or didn’t like about the book ... but isn’t that great? I love book clubs for this and it really highlights how different people can read different things into a text and bring different insights to it.
What others are saying: Amazon UK readers give it 4.4 stars (18 reviewers); Amazon US readers give it 4.5 stars (4 reviewers); Goodreads readers give it 3.98 stars (106 ratings).