By Audrey Magee
A middle-aged English artist arrives in the summer of 1979 on an island off the west coast of Ireland. Lloyd, the protagonist of Audrey Magee’s new novel, “The Colony,” hopes to revive his career by spending three months painting the landscape and its handful of inhabitants. In his optimistic moments, he envisions making work that he will talk about as the “Gauguin of the Northern Hemisphere,” doing for this rocky Atlantic outpost what the French primitivist once did for Tahiti. At the very least, he’ll please the “half-wife” he left behind in London, who also acts as his dealer, who recently told him his paintings are distracting and dull.
After a winding, grueling crossing from the mainland in a currach (he doesn’t consider the motorboat authentic), Lloyd is shocked to discover that he’s not the only visitor with designs on the island. A French linguist going through JP has returned for the fifth summer to complete his longitudinal study on the inhabitants’ use of Gaelic, fieldwork he hopes will earn him a Ph.D. JP denounces the younger residents for occasionally slipping into English and laments the fact that so many have already emigrated to Dublin, London and Boston.
Magee follows her two unsympathetic protagonists as they loot the island for their own ends, each convinced they have the best interests of her. Underscoring that this is the microcosm of the story of the age-old and ongoing colonization of Ireland by England, Magee publishes mainland news bulletins portraying the summer of 1979 of sectarian violence between the Provisional IRA and Protestant paramilitaries. Tit-for-tat murders become the background music, with the sickening crescendo arriving in late August when Lord Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin and a war hero, is blown up with his family while on holiday in County Sligo.
Magee keeps a cool distance from these atrocities, just as she did in her previous novel, “The Undertaking,” which is set in Nazi Germany. Her voice is sparse to the point of austerity, with paragraphs sometimes no more than a word, long and short lines running vertically across the page in what, at first glance, appears to be poetry. This nimble form allows Magee to plunge into the inner lives of her characters, who have a lot to say to themselves about the power struggles unfolding before them, even if they tend to keep quiet in company.
Most notably Mairéad, the beautiful young ‘widow island woman’, who has lost her immediate family in a fishing disaster and is now wrecked by the remaining men on the island – JP (with whom she sleeps), Lloyd (for whom she is naked poses) and Francis (her late husband’s brother, neither of whom approves). Under Lloyd’s influence, Mairéad’s teenage son, James – who urges JP to rename Séamus – begins to explore painting for himself. The boy’s naive style is a revelation to Lloyd, pointing to fruitful directions his own work could travel. Questions of cultural appropriation arise when James dislikes the way “Mr. Lloyd” (we will never know his first name) has “stole” his art.
“The Colony” is a novel of ideas and at times those ideas can feel schematic, especially when JP is given a backstory to his linguistic fanaticism based on the historical occupation of Algeria by France. Overall, however, Magee builds her world with a rich idiosyncrasy that is never standard for the standard lyricism that often characterizes novels about rural Ireland. Meanwhile, the documentary anchors the story in Ireland’s unforgiving political realities during a fateful summer, while recalling the wider legacy of imperialism around the world.