This is a superb novel, probably one of the most assured and layered narratives I’ve read in recent years. Recently longlisted for the Booker Prize, The Colony is a thought-provoking exploration of the damaging effects of colonisation – touching on issues including the acquisition of property (in its broadest sense), the demise of traditional languages and ways of living, cultural appropriation and exploitation and, perhaps most importantly, who holds the balance of power in the isolated society. I found it timely, thoughtful and utterly compelling, a certainty for my reading highlights at the end of the year.
The novel is set on a small, unnamed island to the west of Ireland in the summer of 1979, deep in the midst of the Troubles, a political and nationalistic conflict over the status of Northern Ireland, fuelled by historical events. The island community has declined over the years, leaving twelve families to maintain the old traditions, heavily reliant on fishing (plus rent from the occasional visitor) to make a basic living.
As the summer gets underway, the island must steel itself for the intrusion of two visitors, a volatile combination that seems set to unsettle the community, possibly irreversibly. First to arrive is Lloyd, a fussy, punctilious artist from London who fancies himself as a modern-day Gaugin, keen to capture the island’s cliffs – and possibly the island’s inhabitants – in all their natural beauty. Following a ridiculous journey by rowing-boat, Lloyd further annoys the islanders by complaining about his accommodation, insisting on a rearrangement of the furniture to make the most of the dwelling’s light. While solitude and silence are crucial to his work, Lloyd is repeatedly interrupted by James; at fifteen, he is the youngest member of the local family that provide the visitor’s meals.
The second visitor arrives just as Lloyd settles into a rhythm, capturing the island’s landscape in traditional charcoals and oils. The man in question is JP Masson, a French linguist nearing the end of a five-year longitudinal study on the evolution of the island’s language, a traditional Gaelic dialect in danger of dying out. Compared to the demanding Englishman, Masson is well-liked by the islanders, his arrival heralded with a full tea and spread.
Masson is keen to protect the island’s language, fearful of any erosion by the encroachment of English phrases and intonations with the potential to disturb. Consequently, he is resentful of Lloyd’s presence on the island – surely a contaminating influence on the Gaelic dialect he wishes to preserve. Likewise, Lloyd is equally annoyed by Masson, viewing him as a disturbing presence to the silence required for his art. These tensions are only exacerbated when Masson discovers that Lloyd’s cottage is directly adjacent to his own, subtly highlighting one of the central issues of colonisation as the men divide up their territory, flinging turf around as they go.
He [Masson] picked up the turf straddling the dividing line and threw it into his basket. Mine, Lloyd, for I was here first. The whole yard is mine. Always has been. And damn you, anyway. For being here. For intruding. […] An Englishman. In this, my final summer. He shouldn’t be here, not on this island, not in this yard, for this is my place, my retreat,… (p. 87)
Mealtimes with James’ family prove particularly stressful for everyone, with Masson insisting the islanders speak Gaelic – a language Lloyd does not understand – while Lloyd prefers English, replete with its own troublesome associations. Deep-seated divisions soon emerge, questioning the validity and ownership of a dying language in a modern, English-speaking world.
It’s theirs to kill, said Lloyd. Not yours.
Masson shook his head.
You can’t speak on this. You have spent centuries trying to annihilate this language, this culture.
This is about Ireland, said Masson. About the Irish language.
And do the Irish have a say, said Lloyd, in your great plan for saving the language?
The English don’t, said Masson. (pp. 94-95)
Central to Masson’s study is the multigenerational O’Neill/Gillan family. At fifteen, James is the youngest, the only bilingual member, fluent in Gaelic and English, having been schooled on the mainland. The boy’s elders are pressuring him to become a fisherman, following in the footsteps of his father, uncle and grandfather, who drowned in a fishing accident when he was a baby. James, however, has other aspirations; he is a talented artist with a natural eye for composition – more promising than Lloyd, who is struggling to capture the island’s birds and subtle natural light.
As James starts producing his own paintings of island life, Lloyd ‘borrows’ the boy’s ideas, indulging in a form of artistic appropriation to further his own career. With Lloyd dangling the promise of a joint exhibition of their work in London, James hopes to use his creative talents as a possible means of escape. Anything to get away from fishing, the burden of providing for his family, not to mention continuing the Gaelic language as per Masson’s insistent wishes.
…because if I smell of something other than fish, of paints and oils, they might all see that I should leave, that I am not a fisherman, not a proper island boy, but something that has to be elsewhere, somewhere other than here looking after my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and now they’re giving me the mother tongue to look after as well, to save that mother too, to save it all and the other mothers. I don’t want so many mothers. (p. 148)
Something Magee does so brilliantly here is to move the point-of-view around from one character to another – often within the same paragraph or sentence – showing us the richness of each person’s inner life despite the limited nature of their existence. James’ mother, Mairéad, for instance – a woman who mostly speaks in Gaelic but has a reasonable understanding of English, enough to know what is being discussed at the table. As Mairéad knits a jumper for James, she ponders her grandmother’s attitude to knitting, another illuminating passage on the enduring pain of colonisation.
They take our land, she says, starve us and then to alleviate the poverty, to assuage their guilt, they set us up with knitting. Make jumpers this way and sell them, they said. Earn your living that way, they said. Earn your rent that way, they said, though, we liked earning our living the other way, from the land that was our land, the sea that was our sea. But they told us to knit, so now we knit. Well, I’m not knitting, says Bean Uí Fhloinn. Not that knitting. Their knitting. Their Scottish, English, Irish knitting. I’ll do my own knitting. Knit as my mother did. As my grandmother knitted. (pp. 163–164)
While still pining for her drowned husband, Liam, Mairéad treads a dangerous path, sleeping with Masson in the dead of night, then walking to the cliffside hut at dawn, where she poses semi-nude for Lloyd in the style of a Rembrandt muse. There is no sexual attraction for Mairéad in these sessions with Lloyd; only a desire for her essence to be captured in oils, then taken away from this deadly island – the place that has claimed her holy trinity of men – to hang in a gallery for posterity as an image to endure. Also relevant here is Liam’s temperamental brother, Francis, who ‘waits in the long grass’ for his widowed sister-in-law, Mairéad, the woman he desperately wants to possess.
Bean Uí Néill – James’ grandmother and Mairéad’s mother – is another woman scarred by loss and erosion. Wary of the islander’s visitors, she is fearful that Lloyd will paint the islanders – which he does, having already promised to stick to the cliffs. The presence of one outsider (Masson) on the island feels manageable for this matriarch, but two at the same time spells trouble – a prediction that ultimately comes to pass.
While Bean Uí Néill turns a blind eye to Mairéad’s visits to Masson’s bed – written off as a tolerable summer fling – she knows nothing of her daughter’s sessions with Lloyd. Bean Uí Fhloinn, on the other hand, misses nothing. Fully immersed in the Gaelic language, James’ great-grandmother is Masson’s prime subject, the source for his dissertation and subsequent book, which are sure to be a great success. Yet, in his own way, Masson is just guilty as Lloyd of cultural exploitation, using the islanders’ language to further his progression while casually sleeping with Mairéad. Interestingly, Magee adds another layer to her portrayal of Masson, exposing his own colonial heritage. Born to a brutal French father and a misguided Algerian mother, Masson was forced to learn Arabic in secret as a child, a practice that deepened the divisions within an already fractured household.
For a novel concerned with the preservation of language, Magee’s prose is suitably stunning, demonstrating a poetry and fluidity as it flows from one character to another, blurring the margins between observation, dialogue and inner thoughts and feelings.
He looked at the sky and began to draw
swirling and twisting
cloudless blue (p. 11)
There’s some gorgeous descriptive writing here too, deftly capturing the play of light on the beautiful coastal landscape, complete with its active birdlife.
He attached paper to the easel and lifted a pencil to sketch long lines up and down the page, a low hum slipping through his lips as his fingers and hand moved across the sheet, hunting to recreate that first encounter, his first sighting of that ferocious beauty, page after page of light and dark, of unshaded and shaded, working late into the night and again in the early morning, relishing the stillness of the village, of the island, his doors and windows open to flood the cottage with light, with the sounds of the sea and the songs of the birds. (pp. 51–52)
As the novel draws to a close, there is a notable escalation in tension, a factor present throughout in the island’s power dynamics. Alongside these palpable pressures, Magee punctuates the narrative with radio bulletins on the Troubles – short, factual reports of terrorist incidents on the mainland, offering no judgements or opinions, just the cold, hard facts of death and sectarian violence. With the summer turning to autumn, the visitors finally prepare to depart, having planted emotional hand-grenades of their own with the potential to explode…
In a wise move, Magee doesn’t overplay the novel’s denouement, eschewing high drama for a more understated ending – still devastating in its own way, but quietly so, pregnant with uncertainties as to what the future will hold. We fear for these islanders – their traditions, their livelihoods, and ultimately their safety – lives disrupted by the self-centred interlopers, men who have sown the seeds of discontentment and potential violence for many years to come.
The Colony is published by Faber; personal copy.