Book review: The Colony, by Audrey Magee

Set on a small, sparsely populated island off the west coast of Ireland, Audrey Magee’s carefully written exploration of language and identity moves slowly but with purpose, writes Allan Massie
Audrey Magee PIC: Jonathan HessionAudrey Magee PIC: Jonathan Hession
Audrey Magee PIC: Jonathan Hession

Audrey Magee’s second novel comes garlanded with praise from Colm Tóibín and Anne Enright, evidence yet again that Dr Johnson was wrong when he said the Irish were an honest people because they never speak well of each other. At a time when so much new fiction is tiresomely pretentious, it is good to come upon a serious novel that is carefully, imaginatively, if sometimes, one must admit, irritatingly written. It is not as long as the 372 pages might suggest, because Magee is given to writing one-sentence, and even one-word, paragraphs.

The setting is a small, sparsely populated island off the west coast of Ireland, three miles into the Atlantic. It’s an outpost of Gaeldom, the islanders being Irish-speakers, some of them monoglot. Their income comes from fishing and occasional visitors. Two of these, an English painter, Mr Lloyd, and a French academic, JP Masson, are at the centre of the novel.

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We meet Lloyd first, being rowed in a small boat, at his insistence, to the island. He has come there to paint the cliffs and the people, and sees himself as exploring new territory, like Gauguin in Tahiti. He is demanding, ill-mannered and thoroughly disagreeable. Magee does well with him and indeed by him, allowing him a certain integrity, just as Somerset Maugham granted that to Strickland, his Gauguin character in The Moon and Sixpence. But from the first he meets with the disapproval of the island’s matriarch, though her great-grandson, James, a likeable and intelligent boy of 16, eager to learn and fascinated by Lloyd’s drawing and painting, attaches himself, not uncritically, to the Englishman.

The Colony, by Audrey MageeThe Colony, by Audrey Magee
The Colony, by Audrey Magee

The Frenchman, Masson, who likes to be addressed as JP, is as tiresome and disagreeable as Lloyd. He is a linguist, engaged on a campaign to preserve the Irish language, a cause he promotes vigorously, even though the locals seem mostly indifferent to it. Lloyd and Masson resent each other’s presence, Lloyd because he believes he had been assured he would be the island’s only visitor, Masson because he sees the painter as a representative of the English imperialists who had for more than 400 years repressed the Irish language until, as he puts it, it became “a private language spoken only at home” – and, one might add, spoken by a diminishing number of people even after 100 years of the Irish Free State and the Republic.

The account of these weeks on the island is interleaved by short accounts, rather like press notices, of the Troubles on the mainland and the murders of Protestants by the Provisional IRA and Catholics by Loyalist paramilitaries. At first these may seem to bear little relationship to the often muted misunderstandings and arguments on the island. Yet inasmuch as the novel is concerned with perception – how people see themselves and others in relation to themselves, and is dominated by the increasingly bitter quarrels between Lloyd and Masson, neither willing to seek to understand the other, the reader may conclude that the insertion of these news items is justified as an illustration of the consequence of a wilful refusal to accept the right of others to their opinion, and indeed their identity.

Some readers will find the novel tiresomely slow, and indeed it is slow. It demands close attention, but deserves it as a carefully written and serious work of art should. Audrey Magee is a serious and careful writer, with the gift for extracting much from little. It says much for her skill that a novel with two such disagreeable and indeed tedious characters as Lloyd and Masson should not only hold one’s interest but do so to such an extent that one finds that interest deepening the further ones reads.

Magee’s first novel was shortlisted for various prizes, among them France’s Festival du Premier Roman. With The Colony, she has comfortably cleared the Second Novel Hurdle that brings so many writers tumbling disappointingly to the ground.

Book review: The Colony, by Audrey Magee, Faber & Faber, 372pp, £14.99

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