Book review: Red Dirt is a tale of Irish drifters seeking a new life Down Under

A number of books have tackled the Irish financial crash of 2008. Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know; Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void; Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz and Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart for example have looked at the boom years, the property market implosion and the pain that followed. But what […]

A number of books have tackled the Irish financial crash of 2008. Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know; Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void; Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz and Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart for example have looked at the boom years, the property market implosion and the pain that followed. But what of the tens of thousands of young Irish who left the country after the collapse of the so-called Celtic Tiger economy?

There has not been a serious literary response to the experiences of this Irish lost generation. Until now that is.

Elizabeth Reapy’s Red Dirt looks at the exploits of three young Irish as they try to escape the grim recession and their personal demons. Murph, for example, saw his family business disintegrate; Fiona has quit an abusive relationship but soon runs out of money and is forced to make a desperate decision; while Hopper, or Derek Finnegan, is a small-time drug courier who is trying to make better choices in life.

We go from glittering Sydney to isolated Perth to the gritty Outback and look on at Irish kids grafting in remote mango farms; drinking in hostels and pining for home. The home country is never far away, especially when life Down Under is anything like the gilded adventure those at home are led to believe: “Waking up in random hostels in St Kilda or in Aussie houses cramped with Irish immigrants to keep the rent down. Young ones like ourselves. Younger even. Was turning out to be worse than the way we were back in Ireland … running too low on dollars. I didn’t want to go robbing. It was supposed to be fresh start here,” Murph laments.

Of course it’s not all people forced to emigrate for a job who travelled to Australia following the crash. There are backpackers, drifters, tourists, failed seekers and others seeking to “find themselves” in the clichéd sense. All these are chronicled in Red Dirt. But this was a sensitive issue in Ireland: a senior minister was berated in 2012 for daring to suggest that some had left the country for “lifestyle reasons”.

But thankfully, the book is not all about Irish people. And characters from other backgrounds often make key interventions at crucial times. Arav, a kindly shop worker most likely from India, helps Fiona evade capture from thug-like men, while an Aboriginal man helps Hopper when he is stranded in the Outback.

Present too are the myriad other migrant groups grinding out shifts across the country. As Murph puts it: “A handful of the workers in the fields were backpackers, but a lot more were illegal Asian migrants, off the boats and on the farms … Indian and Indonesian, Thai and Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese.”

Despite the fact it reads like vignettes rather than a novel, this is an important book. It’s Reapy’s debut and she spent time in Australia so it’s authentic. She said working in a rural orange factory provided the inspiration.

It’s set in 2011 – and anyone who has travelled though Abu Dhabi airport in the past few years can attest to the numbers of Irish connecting to and from Australia.

Ireland itself is on the long, hard road to recovery. And on a recent visit to the country I left in 2012, things feel less stressed: restaurants are busy, there are more cars on the roads. But incredibly, house prices are creeping up again. For those forced to leave in 2008 and chronicled in Red Dirt, this must be a bitter pill.

John Dennehy is deputy editor of The Review.

Source: art & life

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