The Colony by Audrey Magee

What a relief it is to find a novel that treats the reader as a grown-up, that is fresh without chasing literary fashion, provocative but not shouty, and idiosyncratic but fully satisfying from the strange comedy of its opening pages to its decisive conclusion.

The Irish writer Audrey Magee’s second novel starts with a man in a tiny boat being rowed across the choppy waters off the west coast of Ireland in the summer of 1979. Lloyd is an English artist, heading to a three-mile-long island to paint its cliffs and birds, to “create them as they already are”. He is told by the locals to use a larger motorboat (“It’s the Atlantic Ocean, Mr Lloyd”), but won’t listen and soon regrets it. “It’s easier with your eyes open, Mr Lloyd.” “No, it’s not.”

Lloyd, who sees himself as “the Gauguin of the northern hemisphere”, seems entirely unsuited to the task he has set himself, but soon turns from a fool to a knave, making demands of the family he is staying with (more light! more space!). Even in this isolated community he wants to remove himself, eventually taking off to a remote hut where he bathes in ice-cold water in a self-indulgent quest for authenticity.

Then comes another stranger to mix things up. JP Masson is a French linguist on a campaign to save the Irish language, which he pursues with a missionary zeal, even if the locals don’t seem to care that much. Masson sees Lloyd as a representative of the enemy English who centuries ago repressed the Irish language until it became “a private language, spoken only at home”.

Caught in the middle between Lloyd and Masson are four generations of the family who host them, trying to get on with their lives and supplement their poor income with the men’s money.

A novel that is idiosyncratic but fully satisfying from the strange comedy of its opening pages to its decisive conclusion.

One of The Colony’s greatest qualities is how Magee keeps herself out of the story — we never feel her thumb on the scales — so we get to know the islanders not only slowly, but deeply. From the matriarch Bean Uí Fhloinn to her great-grandson James, they are people of few words, their dialogue dropping down the page in short lines.

The older generation — the Irish speakers — help Masson with his language project, and it turns out he has very personal reasons for pursuing it so fetishistically. James, meanwhile, wants Lloyd to teach him to paint and help him to escape the island, while James’s mother, Mairéad, agrees to pose for Lloyd in what can only be described as attire ill-fitted to a windswept Atlantic rock.

And between chapters come echoes from the mainland — brief accounts of the murders taking place in Ireland at the time by republican and loyalist terrorists — which act as a bloody overspill of the passive-aggressive exchanges on the island and a reminder of the end point of zealotry.

Lloyd’s paintings, Masson’s language: the whole story is about seeing things, the language we use, the images we take in, and who controls them. Is language, as one islander says to Masson, “a way to talk to each other. To buy bread in a shop. Nothing more”? Or does it determine how we view the world and other people?

The Colony will not appeal to everyone — strong flavors never do. The violence is upsetting, the two men maddening. Some may find the story slow, but even when not much happens, Magee is tightening the net towards a sequence of confrontations. Aside from the central themes, her book contains multitudes — on families, on men and women, on rural communities — with much of it just visible on the surface, like the flicker of a smile or a shark in the water.

John Self reviews books on the blog Asylum