Drifting toward the experimental—if not landing there entirely—Audrey Magee’s second novel maroons you on a remote Irish island during the summer of 1979, in a narrative where prose and verse collide, grammar rules are bent, and even the white space on the page refuses to conform to convention. On the island, three miles long and half a mile wide, you tread over “grass yellowed and dried, stripped and burnt by the wind” and sit at “a table of blue painted wood,” as news of the Troubles in Northern Ireland arrives by radio and two foreigners, each with their own ambitions for the summer, arrive by boat.
The story begins as English painter Mr. Lloyd prepares for his journey by traditional Irish currach to the island. Inspired by the work of Paul Gauguin, he intends to spend the summer painting his magnum opus, a landscape of the island cliffs. After meeting his hosts, a four-generation family that primarily speaks Irish, he agrees to the one stipulation for his stay: He mustn’t paint the islanders, only the landscapes. Tension builds when, within days, Mr. Lloyd has already broken his agreement and a French linguist named John-Pierre Masson (JP for short) returns to the island for his final summer of research and is aghast to find an Englishman threatening his meticulous study of the Irish language. As the summer drags on, the strife between the foreigners puts the islanders in the murky middle. Bean Uí Néill and her adult daughter Mairéad struggle to meet the clashing demands of their guests, while James, Mairéad’s fifteen-year-old son, begins to dream of a life spent creating art rather than catching fish. The foreigners increasingly abandon their pretenses in pursuit of their own selfish ambitions, forcing the islanders to look ahead to their inevitable departures and wonder what will be left in their wake.
The novel opens in the poetic, anxious mind of Mr. Lloyd, but after he finishes eating his first meal and departs for his cottage, readers do not follow him. Instead, they stay in the kitchen as the islanders reflect on their visitor. “Did you see the way he clicked his fingers at me? Bean Uí Néill asks. He thinks we’re all thick . . . That we’re illiterate, said Mairéad. That we have no English at all.’’ Magee refuses to grant full narrative power to the foreigners, who view the island and the islanders in terms of what they can offer. By granting the islanders narrative authority, she resists their othering.
But beyond her rejection of traditional structure, Magee rejects superficiality in her characters. While both Mr. Lloyd and JP could be considered symbols of colonialism, they are also imbued with idiosyncrasies, passions, and histories. Each of the four narrators (Mr. Lloyd, JP, Mairéad, and James) feels pangs of ambition and visceral desires to achieve limitlessness through art or intellect, beauty or legacy. Magee’s transition between narrators plays out cinematically, as if a camera has been left in a room to focus in on another character’s thoughts or capture an exchange of dialogue.
Eventually, simple, direct dialogue gives way to reflections composed of run-on sentences and fragments, resulting in an off-beat rhythm that mirrors the uncertainty of the times. While knitting a jumper for James, Mairéad reflects on the loss of her family’s men to the sea:
On that day, that autumn day, that last day, he was in his traditional clothes, adamant that he felt no cold, though he must have as the water seeped into him, soaking his skin, his lungs, soaking into their skin, their lungs, my father, my husband, my brother. That Holy Trinity of men. Amen. No men. On a still autumn day. Weighed down by wool.
By contrast, Mr. Lloyd thinks in a kind of verse. Magee writes of Mr. Lloyd’s first sketches of James:
He filled sheets with the boy’s eyes and lips, working to find the balance between the softness of his age and the hardness of island life. He aged him by drawing lines under his eyes
not my son
by english artist.
Many pages of the novel are filled with white space, while others are crammed with text. The resulting effect is a sense of unpredictability and uncertainty, not unlike the uncertainty experienced by the islanders who receive reports of car bombs and shootings almost daily. Though the novel’s imbalanced rhythm can initially feel inaccessible, it forces its readers to reflect on the conventional ways we tell stories about times of turbulence, violence, and upheaval. It is precisely these historical periods that Magee seems most interested in exploring: Her first novel The Undertaking was set in Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II. Magee’s stylistic decisions in The Colony suggest that the uniformity of language and narration typically found in novels cannot accurately capture the turbulence of the Troubles or its impact on the Irish. For readers who persist, the once-jarring structure gives way to a sort of rhythm, like a winter famine followed by a summer feast—but only if you stay engaged, stay immersed.
Language also plays a dynamic role in the novel. Though written almost entirely in English, the novel features the Irish language in dialogue between English and Irish speakers. When Mr. Lloyd paints Mairéad, their conversation shifts between languages, both characters using gestures and nonverbal signals to communicate. Readers unfamiliar with the Irish language must use context clues or Mairéad’s occasional, short English translations to understand the conversation. By contrast, when Irish speakers converse with one another, the dialogue is written in English, though readers are to assume the dialogue is spoken in Irish. Much to JP’s dismay, Mr. Lloyd’s presence on the island makes James and Mairéad speak more English. Ultimately, written Irish, as Magee wields it, is used to demonstrate Mr. Lloyd’s lack of understanding of the native language, and the wider ignorance of the colonized by colonizers.
Overall, the novel’s reluctance to conform to conventions is successful, even inspiring, though some grammatical and stylistic decisions threaten to confuse the casual reader. There are no quotation marks used in this dialogue-heavy book. Instead, readers must rely on the patterns of speech and the use of addresses to follow conversations. Elsewhere, Magee’s use of masculine pronouns instead of proper names makes shifts between Mr. Lloyd and JP difficult to distinguish. Narration often moves from third person into first person and back again. At times, rereading is essential, but close readers need not be afraid of losing their way. The Colony is not a simple read; it’s not supposed to be. Instead, it’s imbued with meaning, sweeping readers up in an inspired narrative with a novel structure. In less capable hands, the novel’s blend of styles might muddle the narrative, but Magee strikes an expert balance of imagination and lucidity.
In fact, clarity was so important to Magee that she chose to add Irish translations to the novel after receiving resistance from early readers. “Do we feel a little bit threatened by Irish?” she asked in a recent interview in the Irish Independent. “When you look at the colonial system, one of the things they want to eradicate is the native language, because they don’t understand what’s going on and they can’t control it.” Magee, who was initially trained as a French- and German-speaking linguist admits she had to reckon with her own relationship to her mother tongue when she began writing the novel. So she committed herself to Irish language research, weaving the literary, the historical, and the journalistic in a narrative that challenges the way we tell stories.
So don’t be intimidated by The Colony. Like Magee’s study of the Irish language, it proves that the path to understanding is a meaningful one.