This is the second novel I’ve reviewed this year with a backdrop of The Troubles. Set in the 1979 on a tiny remote Irish island rather than in a 1993 Ulster village, Audrey Magee’s The Colony is very different from Jan Carson’s The Raptures. Two men make their way to the island, planning to spend the summer there, each with their own very different agenda. Both will have a lasting effect on the island family from whom they’ve rented adjoining cottages.
Truth is elusive when money is in the room
Mr Lloyd is an artist married to an art dealer who’s fallen out of love with his art. Despite advice to the contrary, he’s insisted on being rowed to the island. Micheál and Francis are happy to take his money but think him a fool and make no secret of it. Lloyd is appalled by the food, demanding help setting up the cottage as a studio and able to communicate only through James the teenage son of Mairéad, widowed when three generations of the family’s men drowned while out fishing. Jean-Pierre Masson arrives to spend his fourth summer on the island recording James’ great-grandmother’s stories for his book on the Irish language. JP, as he’s known, appears popular and at ease with the family as opposed to Lloyd. The islanders need both men’s money to survive a harsh winter, already much skimmed by the rapacious Micheál, As the summer wears on, James discovers he has a talent that may help him escape becoming a fisherman, Mairéad devises her own unusual means of escape, JP fears the effects of Lloyd’s English-speaking presence and Lloyd thinks he has found a way to win back his wife’s favour. Far away in the North, sectarian murders make widows and orphans every day.
Best not to wear those boots. Not to be a fisherman. Better to be an artist, drawing death instead of being death
It’s clear from the title that the overarching theme of Magee’s inventive novel is colonialism. JP sees Lloyd’s presence as further evidence of British oppression, intent on preserving the islanders’ dialect, turning away from his Algerian mother’s language and the childhood lessons kept secret from his French father. Lloyd dangles the possibility of a future in front of James, seeing an opportunity to further his own aims through a provocative depiction of the islanders. Lloyd and JP bicker and compete, neither of them considering what the islanders might want or need. Magee punctuates her narrative with accounts of atrocities made immediate by their present tense, their frequency increasing until even those on the island who refuse to talk politics can no longer ignore them. Her writing is both spare and beautiful: Lloyd’s perspective is studded with brief word pictures, while JP’s stream of consciousness passages reveal his own difficult history. Much of the narrative is written in dialogue: laconic exchanges between James and Lloyd threaded through with a deadpan humour; more lyrical ones between JP and the family matriarch. It’s a powerful novel, beautifully expressed, and its ending makes it all the more so.
Faber & Faber: London 9780571367597 375 pages Hardback