Audrey Magee’s debut novel, The Undertaking, was shortlisted for the Women’s prize in 2014. In this follow-up, an English painter named Mr Lloyd climbs with his luggage into a small, leaky currach and is rowed across the Irish Sea to an island off the west coast of Ireland. The island, “three miles long and half a mile wide”, is inhabited by fewer than 100 people. Most of these are native Irish speakers.
Lloyd has “come to paint the cliffs”. He certainly thinks like a painter. Lines set as verse make us privy to his imagistic cast of mind: “He looked then at the sea / rolling to shore / to rocks / to land / rolling from / white-fringed blue […] self-portrait: preparing for the sea crossing”. Lloyd wants to paint birds, seascapes, light; to “create them / as they already are” – a nice definition of what an artist does.
But what Lloyd sees when he looks at the boatmen in his hired currach are mostly cliches: “sinewy / agile strength/ sun-stained hands”. Lloyd’s manner is fussy, patronising, curt. The Gillans, an Irish-speaking family who have rented him a room, are unimpressed: “Obnoxious is the only word for him.” There is one exception: James Gillan, 15 years old, is intrigued by Lloyd’s chaotic studio and by the life it seems to promise. Who is Mr Lloyd? What does he want?
An Englishman bringing his baggage to an Irish island: the meaning of such an encounter, in fiction as in reality, depends quite heavily on the year in which it occurs. Interleaved with scenes of Lloyd failing to charm the islanders are terse chapters recounting Northern Irish atrocities. All of the atrocities happened in 1979 – the year, it is later confirmed in an aside, when the action of The Colony takes place.
If we recall our Anglo-Irish history, we know that this particular year of the Troubles reached a bloody climax on 27 August, when the IRA bombed the fishing boat of Lord Mountbatten in the bay at Mullaghmore, County Sligo, killing or seriously injuring everyone aboard; on the same day, 18 British soldiers were killed by an IRA bomb at Warrenpoint, County Down. Catastrophe looms. Are these short inter-chapters offered merely as an oblique counterpoint to the story of Lloyd and the island? Or will the two strands of the novel in some way collide?
Islands, in fiction, are always metaphors – and, as a rule of thumb, the smaller the island, the bigger the metaphor. The Colony’s nameless Irish island stands, as the title perhaps too pointedly suggests, for all colonies, and Lloyd for all colonisers. He sees with the colonist’s eye. The island cliffs are, he says, more “rugged” and “wild” than those in England: a fanciful notion, fraught with dubious politics. Lloyd is fiercely territorial about his temporary home. When another outsider arrives, he is indignant. His fellow visitor also carries colonial baggage: he is Jean-Pierre Masson, a Frenchman of Algerian descent. Masson is popular with the islanders. For one thing, he speaks Irish, being a linguist who specialises in “languages threatened with extinction”. But Masson, too, sees with politicised eyes. His Algerian mother was married to a French soldier who abused her horribly. Masson finds in the island’s Irish speakers an authenticity, a naturalness, that might bring him closer to his mother’s damaged world.
Lloyd and Masson quarrel over turf for their fires. “Imagine that,” Mairead, one of the islanders, remarks. “A Frenchman and an Englishman squabbling over our turf.” To which her brother Francis replies, “They’ve been squabbling over our turf for centuries.” The visitors argue, from positions of parallel deafness, about history, language, the Troubles. “After all we have done for this country?” Lloyd says. “After all you have done to this country,” Masson replies.
As you can probably tell by now, The Colony serves up a peculiar combination of the oblique and the overt. It’s a novel that both courts and refuses allegory, charting a disorienting course between a piercingly satirical realism on the one hand, and on the other, something much cruder – parable, perhaps, or fable.
This isn’t to discount the pleasurable fluency of Magee’s prose, or her impressive formal intelligence (whereby, for example, the interiority of each character is embodied in a specific style – if Lloyd is an imagist, Masson thinks in lengthy paragraphs of recollection and assertion, and so on). And it is certainly the case that The Colony passes perhaps the only test worth applying to any novel: when it’s over, you find yourself thinking about it. Like a fable, The Colony is sealed up tight, all possible meanings accounted for. And, like history itself, it has a bitter lesson to teach. Perhaps this is why, in spite of its minor flaws and oddities, it makes an ultimately satisfying shape in the mind, and creates a mood that lingers discomfitingly after the final page is turned.
The Colony, by Audrey Magee, is published by Faber & Faber (14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply