“The Colony exceeds the sum of its spare parts, offering compulsive reading even as it poses weighty, uncomfortable questions.”
Audrey Magee’s second novel is a beautifully-crafted meditation on art, language, memory and colonialism.
Lloyd, an English painter hoping to energise a disappointing career, leases a cottage on a remote, austere Irish island for the summer. Ostensibly interested in the landscape, Lloyd quickly begins painting its inhabitants, the remains of an old Gaeilgeoir fishing community, despite his hosts’ prohibitions. They are not so much a unified family as debris adrift upon waves of emigration and death – great-grandmother Bean Uí Fhlionn, grandmother Bean Uí Néill, her daughter Mairéad, and her teenage son, James. The deaths of James’ father, uncle and grandfather at sea have left the women financially-dependent upon Mairead’s absentee-landlord brother, Micheál, and her fisherman brother-in-law, Francis; their continued survival is contingent upon James becoming a fisherman, and/or Mairéad consenting to marry the brutish Francis. In need of money, Micheál has double-booked the cottage for the summer; Lloyd is joined by JP, a French linguist completing his study of the ‘ancient, dying language’ of Irish. Body-counts from the escalating conflict in Northern Ireland punctuate this main narrative – first as discrete fragments, and eventually as diegetic radio-dispatches which invade the kitchen as tensions on the island come to head.
Essentially, The Colony explores the colonial power-dynamics that structure encounters between outsiders and the ‘untamed’ islanders. Hungry for acclaim, Lloyd pursues ‘a beauty unearthed/unseen/unpainted’; the character of that beauty, the humanity of his subjects, are subordinate to Lloyd’s own fantasies of their exotic rarity. His presumption to represent ultimately disfigures, ‘making the island into something it isn’t.’ He is, in effect, a colonial cartographer. By contrast, JP understands himself as a conservationist. Yet his is a white-saviour fantasy of preserving in amber his own idea of Irish language and culture. To JP, Bean Uí Fhloinn is an artefact, ‘a totem, reminding us what is being lost, how life used to be’. To Lloyd, the ‘beautiful island widow’ Mairéad is a cypher, the Irish Galatea to his English Gauguin.
Driven by philosophy and critique rather than ‘action’, the narrative of The Colony is in a sense functional; Magee’s unhappy conclusion feels hopelessly foregone. Yet The Colony is not just a treatise disguised as fiction. Magee’s self-possessed, lyric prose endows the island and its inhabitants with a richness of texture, creating the aesthetic and emotional space for the pathos which renders this doomed tragedy tense and involving. Dialogue and description are presented in a spare, disembodied third-person, which gives way mid-sentence to focalised narration of characters’ interior worlds of memory and emotion. The most spellbinding moments of the book are in the poetic reveries of Mairéad’s internal-monologue. As she knits, cooks, cleans, the meanings that spiral from everyday objects create recursive loops of the past and future, memory-palaces in which her husband rises from the sea to drown again. These streams-of-consciousness are thematically dense, yet Magee threads so deftly that the structures she spins around characters feel evanescent as spiderwebs.
The Colony exceeds the sum of its spare parts, offering compulsive reading even as it poses weighty, uncomfortable questions. Magee ultimately asks what it means to live alongside a past which structures relationships, but is only visible through the trick-mirror of myth, about which we can never truly ‘know’.
Words: Pádraig Nolan