The Colony

Audrey Magee

The Colony
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The Colony

Audrey Magee

He handed the easel to the boatman, reaching down the pier wall towards the sea.

Mr Lloyd has decided to travel to the island by boat without engine - the authentic experience. Unbeknownst to him, Mr Masson will also soon be arriving for the summer. Both will strive to encapsulate the truth of this place - one in his paintings, the other with his faithful rendition of its speech, the language he hopes to preserve.

But the people who live here on this rock - three miles wide and half-a-mile long - have their own views on what is being recorded, what is being taken and what is given in return. Over the summer each of the women and men in the household this French and Englishman join is forced to question what they value and what they desire. At the end of the summer, as the visitors head home, there will be a reckoning.


In the previous issue of our August newsletter one of my dear colleagues wondered if his reading year had peaked after finishing Hanya Yanagihara’s newest book. The very same notion has crept over me in these last few days as I’ve been reading The Colony by Audrey Magee. This book is exceptionally good, with great depth and empathy, and highly prescient themes addressing colonialism, conflicting notions about art, language and cultural traditions, as well as age versus youth.

Tension is immediately felt when an artist meets a linguist on a tiny and remote windswept island off the (presumably west) coast of Ireland, with each one believing too much in their own sense of self-importance and their chosen vocation. It is young local James, who demonstrates innate artistic ability while apprenticed to the artist, who shows he has the measure of both men. This island setting is a Gaeltacht, a district and community where the Connacht Irish dialect is the dominant vernacular. Where artist Mr Lloyd is ambivalent about the impact on the gradual loss of the use of this language, for the linguist J. P. Masson, the mere presence of another outsider to this isolated community is evidence writ large. Short passages documenting recent historical acts of political violence anchor the book in both time and place, but even without these, the central premise would remain both topical and fascinating.

Through Magee’s wonderful prose I felt immediately transported to this blustery environment and in turn as if propelled into the warm kitchen for strong black tea. The author doesn’t use the same sense of word-casting and play as Max Porter did with Lanny, but there’s a cadence and rhythm that for me evoked the Sean-nós ‘old style’ singing tradition made famous by Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (Joe Heaney) among others. This is another great addition to the rural novel canon, with all the right ingredients to be a major prizewinner!

Julia Jackson is the assistant manager at Readings Carlton.

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