Book - The Colony

Tony Cross is reading his way through the Booker Prize Longlist 2022. Today he is taking on The Colony by Audrey Magee...

The Colony is Audrey Magee’s second novel. It is set on a small Irish island in 1979 where an English painter, Mr. Lloyd, has come to work. The island is home to ninety-two people, from twelve families, but we focus on three women, of three different generations and a young boy, James. The women are Mairéad, the youngest and mother to Séamus/James*; Bean Uí Néill, Mairéad’s mother and Bean Uí Fhloinn, the grandmother. All three women are widows. Mairead’s husband, brother and father all died. Their bodies have never been recovered.

The island is a Gaelic speaking place, although James can speak English fluently. This not quite last remnant of the non-Anglo Ireland has attracted a French linguist, Masson, who arrives after Lloyd to finish of his work. The final pieces of the jigsaw are Micheál and Francis. Both originally from the island but now living on the mainland and making a living fishing and other things.

Interspersed between their story are short chapters featuring murders happening in Northern Ireland during the summer of 1979. It is easy to forget now that 1979 was a bloody year. The stories are real. The people were real. The victims are Catholics and Protestants, Irish and British.

Like ‘The Trees’ I think the power of names is an important part of this book. The names of the victims of violence, Séamus/James’s choice of what he wants to be called, the names of the three lost men of who died in a fishing accident and the fact that:

“They’re all waiting…All waiting for those men to come out of the sea.” (p336)

And colonisation isn’t just the colonisation of land and language but of women’s bodies and knowledge. The theft of ideas. Even the colonisation of privacy.

James wants to leave. He doesn’t want to become a fisherman. He’s tired of everyone knowing his business. He builds a relationship with Lloyd that seems to be an escape route. But Lloyd is an Englishman and an artist so can you trust him, especially when it becomes clear that James is a better painter than him.

Francis – whose brother Liam was Mairéad’s lost husband, wants to marry Mairéad but he’s playing a long game, which the presence of Lloyd and Masson makes more complicated.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Points of view change. Masson and Lloyd argue often about the value of saving Gaelic. Masson talks about British colonialism but Lloyd points out that France has its own colonial legacy to deal with. Why, he asks, is Masson not in Algeria?

Masson has his story. There’s a lot going on in all these characters lives.

Magee’s writing is lovely and she does an excellent job of changing tone for different people’s point of view. She switches to a more administrative tone for the sections that tell the stories of real murders as if they’re being read out on the news. The earlier murders seem to be separated from the story taking place on the island. But as the book goes on they seem to join together more.

The book manages to feel like it is telling a series of personal stories and a broader national story.

* Séamus/James – His Irish name is Séamus, in English it is James. What name he calls himself is a source of discussion with Masson who calls him Séamus despite James asking him not to. Accordingly, I’m going to call him James going forward because that is what James wants.

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