Updated: Oct 6, 2022
Two men make their way to a tiny Irish island. On uncertain and uneasily, the other more self-assured. Mr Lloyd crosses the sea from England for the first time and not in a ferry but on a small currach to get the most authentic experience. His easel, canvases and paints are sent over by ship. Lloyd is looking for loneliness, he wants nothing but the cliffs, the wind, the sea – hoping they will help him create the paintings to save his failing career. He seeks solitude but finds a Frenchman inhabiting the cottage next to his. Jean-Pierre is returning to the island for the summer. A linguist studying the Irish language on this remaining home of Gaelic speakers. He fears the presence of the Englishman with his language will disrupt and change the inhabitants speech and challenge the results of his study. Both men see themselves as objective observers wanting to see and capture the reality of life on the island, but both seek to control and reify their own image of land and people.
The island’s inhabitants – from the Bean Uí Fhloinn, the matriarch in her nineties to James, the fifteen year old who does not want to be a fisherman – have their own internal struggles with their identity. How they want to live, how much English influence to allow are not clearcut. Between men and women, between the generations, different ideas and ideals exist. These struggles grow more pronounced when James befriends Lloyd and discovers his talent for painting. He starts to dream of moving to London to become a painter, a dream supported by Lloyd and secretly by his mother Mairéad who knows her son does not want to live the life that killed his father, his uncle his grandfather.
At the same time, another story grows more and more prominent and finds its way into the islanders’ thoughts: episodes of the troubles are interwoven and, short but powerfully. As the novel goes on we learn about the push and pull of future and past in a world forever marked by colonial violence. There is something distant, almost dispassionate about Magee’s writing. But rather than neutralising the grief central to this story it highlights it in stark contrast, making it even more plain to see. The prose is lyrical, you can hear the melody of the Irish English, feel the wind and smell the sea off the page. It language flows from one-word columns to streams of consciousness. While the painter’s thought is told in short words, evocative and visual, the linguist’s internal monologue appears in long, winding sentences, urgent words, that run on for pages. The borders between internal thoughts and dialogue are blurred, one flowing seamlessly into the next. Audrey Magee writes in song and colour. The characters and scenes are painted with a subtlety that is immensely powerful – the reader sees the cliffs and knows the protagonists. The scenes of grief in this novel are raw, convincing and heart-shattering. Unwavering in her condemnation of colonialism, unflinching in her reporting of the violence committed, Magee never preaches but achieves the desired effect by showing the reader what she knows. The Colony is the struggle between the old and the new, tradition and change, inheritance and choice. It is also a testament to the wonders some authors can do with language.
I could go on and on about this book that moved me so deeply but I do not want to take away all the mystery this magical masterpiece has to offer. If, however, you walk into Hodges Figgis, I will not let you leave without a copy.