The Colony by Audrey Magee

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

A first encounter with The Colony has the effect of causing a reviewer to shudder at the combinations of logic and mythology that he faces. Consider the following:

  • The island visited by Mr Lloyd is small, measuring only three miles by half a mile. One immediately suspects that a small island will support a weighty metaphor. Moreover, the title suggests that the island may stand for the UK’s colonies and Lloyd for all colonisers.
  • The time of Lloyd’s visit is 1979, the year in which Lord Mountbatten was murdered by the Irish Republican Army. In fact, the book contains accounts of sectarian and terrorist killings, committed by all sides.
  • The native Irish people, the fisher folk, the inhabitants of the island, are shown as being hardened by tradition. They move and think slowly. They are located in a remote spot where brain stimulation is hardly a priority.
  • What Lloyd sees when he looks at the boatmen in his hired currach are mostly cliches.
  • By contrast, James has a talent that Lloyd recognizes as superior to his own.

The book exhibits at various levels. The Britisher- Frenchman rivalry holds pride of place as it is the amalgam that holds the artifice together. Lloyd makes no attempt to make the locals like him. He is fussy and patronising. He is curt. The Gillans, an Irish-speaking family who have rented him a room, see him as obnoxious. He is a mystery man to them, someone who makes no effort to make himself intelligible to them. Only with James does he make an effort.

The Frenchman is equally upset to find that a stranger is living next door. He is not the person to remain unheard. He is an evangelist for endangered dialects. He and the Englishman quarrel over turf for their fires, thereby producing a sally from Mairead that, “A Frenchman and an Englishman squabble over their turf”, to which her brother replies that they’ve been squabbling over our soil for centuries.

The Colony serves a peculiar combination of the oblique and the overt. As one critic wrote, “It’s a novel that both courts and refuses allegory, charting a disorienting course between a piercingly satirical realism on the one hand, and on the other, something much cruder.”

Something must be said about Magee’s style. It is certainly pleasurable enough, but the interiority of each character is embodied in a specific style. Lloyd is most often an imagist, but Masson thinks in lengthy paragraphs. He recollects, he asserts. When you have finished The Colony, you find yourself thinking about it. It is a unit where all possible developments have been considered.

Magee’s prose has been described as luminous. That is the correct word to use. It is also pungent and lyrical. Examples of vertical columns of one-word paragraphs give way to the minutiae of rabbit-gutting. It is a very strange, but effective, mode of writing.

A very strange book, told by a woman who knows how to write in a creative manner.

The Colony

(2022)

By Audrey Magee

Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978-0-571-36760-3

$29.99; 384 pp

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