All cassowary species are at risk in the wild and are classified as vulnerable animals.
EM Reapy’s timely and terrifying new novel Red Dirt follows three young Irish people – Murph, Fiona and Hopper – who have travelled to Australia following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger in Ireland. Escaping the economic disaster of their home country, they have come to find a better life halfway across the world, yet in the chaos of backpacker hostels, factories, farms, drugs and drink, they are discovering that you can try and escape your country and your past, but you can’t escape yourself.
Red Dirt is told from the point of view of three main characters, whose stories overlap and are linked in more ways than one.
Murph has come to Australia to get away from the shame of his father’s bust building firm, which caused the loss of many jobs in his home town. Along with this friend Shane, the reality of life in Australia is starting to hit home. Living in hostels, missing out on jobs because of failed drug tests and drinking constantly, they realise they have to come up with a plan.
Off our faces all the time and running too low on dollars. I didn’t want to go robbing. It was supposed to be a fresh start here.
They get the opportunity of work on a fruit farm through an acquaintance called John Anthony and along with the lost and unpredictable Hopper, they set off on a car journey which ends in disaster and has far-reaching consequences for all involved.
Fiona is in Australia to get over the break-up of an abusive relationship. Her story is told in the second person, a tricky narrative voice to get right, but it is done here in a skilful way. We are drawn in to Fiona’s thoughts and experiences which means that, for me, this is the strongest section of the book. As Fiona struggles with her finances, her confidence and her self-worth, she stumbles into a nightmarish scenario of dependency and sex-trafficking which is as heart-breaking as it is terrifying.
I’m afraid. Every day, I’m so afraid. Of the past. Of Ireland and here. Of men. Of sleeping. Of what happens next. Of myself. I’m afraid of myself
The third section of the book follows Hopper, devastated by the realisation that the child in Ireland he thought was his has been fathered by another man and prone to arson and casual violence. Directionless and abandoned, he befriends an older man, has a drug-induced conversation with kangaroos and does his best to control his anger – ‘the fizz’ – before it controls him.
He wanted his life to be better. He wanted his life to be okay. He wanted to be on this buzz without thinking like this. Of them. Of his parents. All the bad.
Many Irish writers are tackling the issue of the Celtic Tiger and the subsequent financial crash, but by exploring the lives of those who emigrated to Australia, EM Reapy channels their experience in a fresh and unique way. Fuelled by cheap drink, available drugs and a lack of responsibility, her characters end up in a spiral of self-destructive behaviour that mirrors the self-destruction of the Irish economy. Where Australia would once have seemed like the Promised Land to the young people of Ireland, it’s now just somewhere else to fail in. The Irish have become a source of cheap migrant labour and the locals don’t like it.
We came along, desperate for jobs and undercut the locals. Not our problem. The farmers could …also still employ the people from the area, like. But would you, if you could get cheap workers?’ You shrug. ‘I’d exploit the shit out of them’
They are being exploited, working hard for not enough money and hearing echoes of the attitudes the working Irish once faced over 50 years ago. As someone comments, ‘misfortunate breed, the Irish’. The same societal structures exist in Australia as in the Ireland they have left behind, where those arriving with money succeed and those looking to make money are taken advantage of.
‘Celtic Tiger’s no way dead man’ the red chinos guy says. ‘It’s just on fucking holidays Down Under, like. My bank account can totally prove it.’ They hear-hear. You nearly gag. You think about the misery at home with the redundancies. The evictions. The suicides. Ones in the signing on queue wearing hats and sunglasses. All the parked up cars. All the unlived in property. All the full exile planes.
This is no holiday for our characters and like a modern day Lord of the Flies, these young people are trapped on an island with no one to look out for them, making the wrong decisions and tearing themselves apart. These aren’t trust fund kids taking a year out to back pack, these are young people with no safety net. Their frantic parents have no means of helping them out and they are ill-equipped to help themselves.
It is the story of desperate choices leading to terrifying consequences and the novel is taut with a sense of tension and imminent disaster. The different voices and overlapping time frames create a charged sense of dread and there is an almost cinematic manner to the descriptions of the vast, arid spaces of Australia. Reapy is also very good at capturing the naivety and innocence of her characters, so that even when we know they are making terrible decisions, we can’t help but wonder what we ourselves would do different.
She could have been a million Irish girls with her splash of freckles and highlighted hair. Her new Penney’s summer clothes unpacked and put away neat into a locker. Cheap and hopeful.
Murph, Fiona and Hopper may have come to Australia with hope, but they are quickly realising that it won’t take them far. As frightening and real as Red Dirt is though, some glimmers of hope do remain. Fiona and Hopper in particular face unimaginable danger and terror yet find an inner strength they never knew they had to come through their ordeals. Their boss at the factory, Henk says;
Good can always come of bad son
and there is a feeling that although this is rock bottom, they have no other way to go but up and on.
You think about nothing. It’s all you have. Nothing. All you are. Nothing. All your stuff gone. You have no money. You have no friends, no lover, nowhere to go. You have nothing.
You stare at the sky and you realise you are free. You realise this and you say I have everything. ‘I have everything’.
In her short stories Gustavo (compiled in The Long Gaze Back) and The Opposite of a Movie Star, EM Reapy explores how expectations and reality often clash and with Red Dirt, she has taken this theme further to create a thrilling, distinctive and compelling debut that deserves to be widely read.
I received a copy of red Dirt from the publisher, Head of Zeus, through Netgalley in return for an honest review.