Book review: The Colony by Audrey Magee


the colony audrey mageeLloyd is travelling to a remote Irish island because he wants to paint the cliffs. He is going in a rowing boat because he wants the authentic experience. He is nauseous and terrified as the boat’s owner looks at him with bemusement and the ferry passes them by.

There is some lovely comedy in this initial scene of The Colony. It’s a familiar set-up, the wily locals laughing at the naivety of the incomer, happily taking his money even as they warn him of what he faces.

This is an Irish-speaking community. Lloyd is renting a cottage from a family, joining them for meals. When the men go away again, and with the women unable – or unwilling – to speak English, he relies on the youngest family member, James, to be his interpreter and guide. While Lloyd learns about the island, James is keen to gain the skills to move beyond it, leading to tension with the wider family.

This is further complicated by the arrival of Jean-Pierre Masson. He is a French linguist who has been studying the Irish speakers on the island and the encroachment of English for four years. The presence of an Englishman at the heart of the family is interfering with his research. Equally, Lloyd wants silence to create his art, and Masson’s arrival means constant dialogue. They inevitably come into conflict as each tries to articulate, if not impose, their own view of life on the island.

At the heart of the family is Mairéad. Mother of James, widowed young, she plays a crucial part in the lives of all the men on the island, from her late husband’s brother, to Lloyd and Masson. Each has an idea of who she should be, while she struggles to maintain her sense of self, as much as her memories of her dead husband.

Initially there is a timeless quality to the story. It could be the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century. There are only little clues that jar – such as Lloyd’s art materials being wrapped in plastic. Gradually, though, through the insistent interventions of the radio in the kitchen, the outside world is intruding. The island may be remote, but it is connected to Ireland and the wider world.

I really enjoyed the early part of The Colony, when we’re mostly seeing the world through the eyes of Lloyd. He thinks in images, expressed in terse, evocative terms. He imagines completed works, as if his own life only exists for him as material. Through him we see the startling landscape and his perception of the people – and of the world he has left behind.

I felt that Masson’s backstory and the lengthy passages about the Irish language were less interesting. The arguments between Masson and Lloyd were simplistic, even childish, but perhaps that’s intentional. They are both egotistical and determined to impose their own view.

Lloyd, an outsider at home, finds himself defending an English colonial position. It’s also interesting that he has a Welsh name, suggesting that Englishness is itself an identity constantly in flux. And it is Lloyd’s fractured personality that is key to the novel’s dramatic climax.

The Colony is a beautifully written, atmospheric novel, asking subtle questions, capturing a world of conflict in a small community, a family, even within individuals.

I received a copy of The Colony from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Colony on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at more of my reviews of Irish fiction

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