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The Colony by Audrey Magee: rich in learning but loaded with literary devices

A novel that examines the pillaging of local culture on an island in 1970s Ireland

The Colony
The Colony
Author: Audrey Magee
ISBN-13: 9780571367597
Publisher: Faber
Guideline Price: £14.99

The American author John Gardner reportedly said there were only two plots in literature: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Audrey Magee's second novel is firmly in the latter camp, but with a unique spin. The Colony sees two strangers come to "town", which is to say, a small island off the west coast of Ireland, three miles long and a half-mile wide. In the late 1970s, this isolated strip is home to 12 families, or 92 inhabitants, most of whom view their summer visitors with a mix of scepticism and fear.

The first stranger is an English artist, Mr Lloyd, who hopes that a self-imposed exile will reignite both his marriage and his painting. In pursuit of an authentic experience, he demands a currach over from the mainland, against the wishes of the local boatmen, who must then put up with his seasickness and complaints throughout the journey. It is a smart, well-drawn scene that introduces a difficult, self-serving man.

As Lloyd gets to grips with both the monotony and beauty of island life – the lack of modern comforts, the same food and faces, the perfect morning light and rugged landscapes – he is joined on the island by Frenchman JP, a returning visitor who has sought over a number of summers to chart the speech patterns of the Irish language on the island.

Depicting the cheers of the islanders, who come down to the shore to greet him, Magee deftly establishes a different dynamic to the curmudgeonly Lloyd, thus setting up her story of opposites, and the inherent drama of these personalities clashing.


Lost story

The book doesn’t follow through with this promise, however, as the story gets lost amid a number of ill-advised literary devices. The most problematic of these is the use of interior monologue to relay the visitors’ thoughts and motivations for being on the island. For JP, in particular, this device doesn’t ring true. After his introduction to Lloyd, there are pages and pages of an internal tirade whereby he attempts to justify his PhD work in an elaborate, contrived voice inside his own head. Later monologues give the back story of his Algerian heritage, adding layers of interest to his work, though not necessarily to the plot.

There is a lack of dramatic tension throughout The Colony. Scenes feel repetitive – Lloyd’s mentoring of an island teenager, his painting of the boy’s mother in her green scarf, even the overuse of Lloyd’s name by islanders, which initially reads as a clever marker of both deference and disdain.

There is further disruption to the action by Magee’s choice to insert short, intermittent passages that chronicle the lives lost in the Troubles. These work to set the scene era-wise, giving the wider backdrop of violence both north and south of the Border, but they read like news clippings, horrific details about people the reader never encounters, which lack the emotional pull of fiction. Cumulatively however, these passages do have an effect, not least as a lesson in the atrocity and randomness of the killings.

One of the successes of The Colony is that it full of learning, from the Penal Laws, which contributed hugely to the decline of the Irish language, to the swift and brutal acceleration of violence by both sides in the Troubles. Magee skilfully layers these themes throughout the book. Both Lloyd and JP are high-minded about their respective endeavours on the island, their pursuit of authenticity, a word that is repeatedly used to excuse the various degrees of pillaging necessary to achieve it.

Island life

These subtle insights keep the novel buoyant and suit the spare, unshowy style of Magee’s prose, a style that won the Wicklow author critical acclaim and award nominations for her debut, The Undertaking, the story of a newly married Nazi soldier. In The Colony, the historical setting is quieter and more remote, though novels such as Liz Nugent’s Skin Deep and Molly Aitken’s The Island Child show that this backdrop can still have plenty of drama.

If action is lacking in The Colony, the detailing of island life is to be commended. Fried fish, mashed potato and boiled cabbage is the daily menu. The perilous work of fishermen is made clear in curt statements: “They’ll see we’re not home for tea. And that’s it.” The mistrust of mainlanders and the misogyny of some island men makes for interesting terrain. It all amounts to a difficult, tough existence that occasionally offers simple pleasure and respite.

Strangers coming to town, beware: this is no place for holidaymakers. Or as the island’s ageing matriarch, Bean Uí Fhloinn, puts it in her no-nonsense way: “That simplicity doesn’t suit a lot of people. They say it bores them, but I have watched. It’s not boredom. It’s fear.”

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts