Summer 1979, and two outsiders arrive on a small rocky island – only three miles long and half a mile wide – just off the west coast of Ireland. Mr Lloyd is an English artist looking for inspiration. Mr Masson, a French linguist who specializes in “languages threatened with extinction”, is there to study native Irish speakers.
The island is rugged but beautiful, and life there is lonely and primitive. Its 92-strong population have no electricity or mains water and subsist mainly on fish and potatoes. The newcomers are the guests of a family of widows whose fishermen folk were killed in a terrible storm. Only the youngest remains: a teenage boy, christened Séamus, but who prefers to go by the name of James (something that pains Masson, who’s continually nagging the child to proudly embrace his roots). But James does not want to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather: “I will not do it. I will not be that fisherman. That tradition. That drowning tradition. ” James wants to become an artist like Lloyd and study painting in London.
Almost as austere and stark as the island itself, The Colony is a novel in which, other than the interlopers crashing around the place making a nuisance of themselves, not a lot really happens; and at nearly 400 pages, that’s a lot of not-a-lot to get through.
Each man romanticizes the islanders in his own way. Lloyd looks down on them, while Masson puts them on a pedestal, in particular old Bean Uí Fhloinn – “the last of the pure Irish speakers”, with her shawl, clay pipe and knitted socks. That she remains something of an enigma – as do all the women, who give an impression of a rather nebulous collective sense of quietness and placidity – sits in contrast to the brashness of the two men. It’s their demons and frailties that dominate the narrative.
While Masson’s evangelizing is revealed to be motivated by a particular sense of guilt he carries, it is the fragility of Lloyd’s ego that wreaks the most havoc. The cruelty of his behavior, once he realizes that James’ untrained talent threatens to outshine his own, really packs a punch.
The second novel by the Irish journalist and writer Audrey Magee – whose 2014 debut The Undertakingset in Nazi Germany and on the Russian Front, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction – The Colony is a book that invites a certain kind of grandstanding. I could tell you that it’s a story about language and identity, about art, oppression, freedom and colonialism – and it is. It’s a novel about big, important things. The problem is that the novel does not tell us anything especially interesting about any of them, just that it’s complicated.
“It carries their history, their thinking, their being,” Masson insists. “It’s a language. A way to talk to each other. To buy bread in a shop. Nothing more, ”one of the island men corrects him.
And just in case we have not quite grasped the historical context, there’s a lengthy extract from Masson’s dissertation to really ram it home: “Irish became a second-class language, stirring a quiet linguistic civil war that, like the religious divide, lives on in modern Ireland. ”
The actual civil war living on in modern Ireland is anything but quiet, of course. The violence of the Troubles was at its height in the late 1970s, and each of the book’s unnamed, unmarked chapters is separated from the next by an account of that day’s bloodshed and murder – a spiralling rap sheet of punishment and revenge.
At first, these episodes (all real historical events that took place across Ireland, from the IRA’s assassination of Lord Mountbatten to the less infamous murders of civilians who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time) appear to have little to do with life on the island. But, in what’s one of Magee’s more subtle flourishes, about halfway through the book it becomes clear that they are reports on the radio. Background noise that steadily encroaches.
On assessing Lloyd’s first paintings of the sea, James sagely tells the Englishman that he has not quite grasped how the light falls on the water; that it “should look as though it is being lit from below as well as above”. Magee’s novel feels similarly lacking. It’s lovely, but with the right attention to detail it could have been something splendid.
The Colony by Audrey Magee, Faber & Faber £ 14.99 / Farrar, Straus and Giroux $ 28, 384 pages
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