Audrey Magee: The Colony, Faber & Faber, 2022.
Isn’t it funny how we sometimes bear a completely unfounded prejudice against a book? I’d been hearing about this book for the past year or so, I knew it had been longlisted for the Booker, but I was firmly convinced it was something dystopian – about the last few people left alive after a pandemic, perhaps, who have retired to a little island or perhaps to another planet and try to make a go of things. How on earth do we get such wrong impressions – and frightening to think how much else I might be getting wrong! Luckily, at some point I finally read the enthusiastic reviews of some trusted blogger friends more carefully, such as Whispering Gums, Jacqui from JacquiWine and Lisa from ANZLitLovers. Politics, colonialism, art and linguistic anthropology? This is exactly my cup of tea – and no alien planets in sight!
Mr Lloyd is an artist who has come to paint the cliffs and the people of this Gaelic-speaking ‘remote outpost’ in Ireland in the 1970s. He is romantically deluded about the island, insists on coming there in a traditional boat rather than taking the ferry, although he is not a good sailor and feels violently sick. [The conversation with the bemused islanders who bring him over on the boat is hilarious.] He cannot cope with the small windows and dark rooms for his painting, breaks his promise to not draw the islanders almost at once, is grumpy and moody most of the time, but the final straw is when he realises he is not the only outsider who has come to spend the summer there. The much more verbose and extroverted French-Algerian linguist JP Masson is also there, and he is much better regarded, since he is a repeat visitor and speaks Gaelic, which is the subject of his research.
Masson spends most of his time interviewing Bean Ui Fhloinn – the matriarch of the family and the only native speaker who refuses to anglicise her speech. Meanwhile, Lloyd is captivated by the old woman’s granddaughter Mairead, a young widow whom he draws again and again, often as a nude. Three generations of women form the backbone of the island society, especially after the deaths of their fishermen husbands, sons, brothers, but there are some men gravitating around, not just the visitors.
Mairead’s teenage son Seamus is obstinate about anglicising his name to James and dreams of escaping the island and the life of a fisherman. He is fascinated by Lloyd’s art and soon proves to be a promising painter himself, but that is not how Lloyd wants to see him and one of the most moving scenes for me is when James finally sees the painting that Lloyd has made of the islanders and bursts out:
You painted over me, turned me into a fisherman. It’s how you want me to be. How you want me to be seen… An artist can’t over-interpret… I am an exhibit.
These interactions between the islanders and the incomers (each side believing they are tricking the other) – and the animosity or rivalry between the two outsiders themselves – are often quite funny. For example, Englishman Lloyd says at one point: “after everything we have done for this country”, while Masson corrects him “after everything you have done to this country”. But there is always an underlying tinge of sadness or a hint of violence. Mairead’s brother-in-law Francis, who has designs on the widow himself, is quite a sinister figure. Even Masson, who is a child of colonialism himself and therefore more sensitive to nuances of oppression, is using the islanders for his own gain and would ideally like to maintain their language and lifestyle in aspic. Yet you cannot help but feel some pity for his own background, and particularly for his mother’s story.
… a young, beautiful Algerian francophone, Francophile, ripe for my handsome father when he came with the war, with his seed of me that he planted in her, that growth declaring that she was no longer Algerian, no longer one of them, no longer safe as she was different to them… she got into the boat to leave… to land in the country of her dreams, ripe for France as my father had been ripe for her, her reading and thinking ready for the cafes teeming with intellectuals, for the streetcorner politics, the discussion and debate over dinner tables… for the talk of books, of films, of theatre, but found only silence, isolation on the fifth floor apartment that he, the French soldier, had secured for his new family. Although he was no longer a soldier, rather a mechanic who fixed cars, an expert on the deep cleaning of carburettors, rendering her an expert on the removal of oil stains from overalls, fresh overalls every day, his name over the left breast pocket, though her name was nowhere…
This migration because of love and intellectual ideals is presented in parallel with the migration for survival and economic gain, as recounted to Masson by the old matriarch:
My own children, all they could do was talk about America, morning and evening, frantic for it, though I didn’t bother with it. For as long as there is food and a place to rest I see no point in searching the earth for a place to do the same thing, though I know that in times gone by people in these parts had no choice, it was to leave or to starve, but I was born in a more fortunate time, when that was all over and we could eat well enough, though we wouldn’t get fat, mind you, but I’m not sure there’s much good in that, anyhow.
But they can only return triumphant, coming back with something nobody else has – a new hat, better shoes, a bigger belly… My own children have returned from America in that way. Trying to prove that they were right to leave. That we were fools to stay. Suitcases stuffed with fancy clothes and tales of where they’ve been, of who they have met, adamant that their toehold on this earth is higher than ours, of greater value… this hunt for affirmation in a world that affirms little, if anything at all. As though some title could confirm who you are. Some house or car could prove your worth. I suppose it works for some. Men think it attracts women, I suppose, but what type of man is that? And what type of woman is that?
By way of contrast, these scenes are interspersed with factual accounts (like radio news) of sectarian violence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Just like in The Trees by Percival Everett, where we had a stark enumeration of the names of black people who had been lynched, here too we have a stark enumeration of the victims on both sides during the late 1970s, with their age and any family members they left behind. It culminates with the assassination of Lord Mountbatten, which would place this in 1979, but I think the accounts could be from any year – and would last for many more until the Good Friday Agreement.
The book also reminded me of The Banshees of Inisherin, although in the film the sensible younger woman manages to make her escape to the mainland. There were so many aspects of the book which resonated with me, especially the issue of migration, but I think the ingrained colonialist mentality (or feeling of innate superiority) is the most powerful message here. Unlike political and military colonialists, artists and anthropologists may feel they are being benign and helping to raise awareness of the culture they are depicting or studying. The truth is, however, that their simple presence has an impact and sometimes irrevocably changes the community they claim to want to preserve. But this book asks the even bigger question: who gets to decide whether to preserve or progress? And are the two really such polar opposites?
At first I was put off by the lack of speech marks (and I still don’t quite understand why that was necessary), but this became easier to navigate as I continued reading, since each character has quite a unique style of inner monologue as well as actual way of speaking. As the book ends, I couldn’t help worrying about what future Mairead and James might face – that is how invested I became in those characters.
The painter Lloyd may forever fail to fully capture the light in the waves, but Audrey Magee has certainly managed to flawlessly capture a time and place in her book.