The Colony by Audrey Magee
If you like a book teaming with sub-plots, plus some beautiful scenery, then this is absolutely the book for you.
Eighteen pages into the novel there is an unexpected interruption. We begin with a remote island off the West coast of Ireland. An Englishman is rowed across to the island with a trunk of paints so that he can spend the summer painting. Then out of the blue a half page in which two men are murdered, lifting you away from the island and plunging you into ‘The Troubles’ between northern and southern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic, those that wanted English rule and those that didn’t.
Another twenty-eight of these interruptions will arrive through the book, dragging you away from the island. They are full of political affiliations and groups that become acronyms; IRA, UDR, etc, etc. They took me back to my childhood when the news was constantly full of such names, which became confused and muddled as people struggled to understand motives and affiliations. As a boy I found it impossible to tell if there were good guys or bad guys, or why two groups that believed in the same God would want to kill each other. Each of these brief interjections tells in very balanced language the age and religion of the person murdered. The number of children they had. And which group killed them. You are about two hundred pages into the novel before these newsflashes have any connection to events on the island, as comments start to be made about what they have heard on the news.
This is a sensory read that will stay with you and haunt your dreams. Reviewers often talk about books being multi-layered, but The Colony has that in boat loads. By giving a sense of the many layers present, you may gain something of an insight into the book itself.
Mr Lloyd, an Englishman, comes to stay and paint on the island for the summer. Older inhabitants of the island speak only Gaelic, not English. Mr Masson, a Frenchman, arrives. He is an expert in Gaelic and intent on saving the language. He will speak only Gaelic to the islanders and records his conversations with the oldest inhabitant. His mother was Algerian, his father a French soldier, so his background is in colonisation of an ancient Arabic language by the French. Mr Lloyd and Mr Masson cannot get along and bicker constantly.
The book charts the interactions and conversations between these two and the inhabitants of the island. The young man, James, who lost his father and grandfather at sea and does not want to be a fisherman like his ancestors. His widowed mother who will cavort with Mr Masson and model for Mr Lloyd. Her mother and grandmother will approve of none of these events. The story evolves through conversations and paintings. It feels timeless, as though it happened yesterday or forty years ago. If it were not for one well known event in the sequence of the Troubles, we would have nothing to date this with.
There are so many things to love in this book. The island itself is a character, wild and rugged, with all it changeability and its long history of island dwellers. The relationship that develops between James and Mr Lloyd is beautifully drawn in sparse conversations. The painting of James’ mother is also beautifully written. But most of all the rising tension as we draw towards the end of the book and the lingering sense that something terrible is about to happen, is expertly written.
I mentioned the many layers of the book, and I may have touched on half of them, but there is so much more going on and being hidden. This really is a book to linger over, unpick and enjoy.
Faber and Faber