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Murals depicting “The Troubles” on the walls of houses at the Bogside, a prominently catholic and Irish nationalist neighbourhood, in Derry, Northern Ireland, UK, on May 2, 2022. Photo: Bloomberg

ReviewIreland’s ‘Troubles’ the backdrop to The Colony, Audrey Magee’s novel about a small fictional colonial struggle

  • The Troubles insert themselves into The Colony as an intermittent, always violent journal
  • Magee holds back the greatest impact of the colonist on the colonised until the book’s end

The Colony, by Audrey Magee. Published by Faber & Faber

Audrey Magee’s bestselling first novel, The Undertaking (2014), starts with a mud-stuck wedding, absentee bride, lice-infested bridegroom and the invasion of Ukraine (by Germans including the groom): the desperation of war, and a reminder still that life is desperately, darkly funny.

Her new novel begins with a lighter comic touch. Mr Lloyd, an English artist on his way to a summer’s painting on a tiny island off the Irish coast, is overseeing the loading of the currach, a small, hand-built boat belonging to the islander Francis. Lloyd’s anxious formality is set against Francis’ earthy pragmatism:

This one is heavy, he said.

It’ll be grand, Mr Lloyd. Pass it down. […]

Are they [easel and chest] secure?

They’re grand, Mr Lloyd

I hope they’re secure.

As I said, they’re grand.

Lloyd has Gauguin-like dreams for his summer sojourn on the unnamed Irish island: he will depict the landscape, and – in his colonial imagination – landscape includes the inhabitants. Of course, the inhabitants don’t see themselves as extrusions of the island – Lloyd has instructions not to paint the cliffs, and certainly not to paint the locals. He ignores both.

Colonist No 2 is French-Algerian linguistics scholar Jean-Pierre Masson, who sees the islanders as the last bastion of pure Irishness and pure Irish Gaelic language, and – as is the way of colonists – in need of an outsider’s salvation. He experiences the English language as an assault, “the inside of his head agitated by the molecules of foreign tongue lingering in the air”.

One recipient of both the colonialists’ approaches is young islander James Gillan, who has no affinity for the fisherman’s life he is expected to take up, and profound reasons to avoid it.

James’ natural artistic ability attracts Lloyd’s attention – Lloyd gifts him art materials and encourages him to create work for an exhibition in London. But Masson is worried that English influence will corrupt the young man.

Author Audrey Magee. Photo: Getty Images

Neither Lloyd nor Masson had been informed that they were to share the island with the other, and neither is happy about it. For the Irish residents, it’s to be expected:

Imagine that […] A Frenchman and an Englishman squabbling over our turf.

They’ve been squabbling over our turf for centuries, said Francis.

Magee’s novel is set in her fictional colonial microcosm across the summer of 1979. A short currach ride across a little strait of the Atlantic, a larger colonial struggle is under way. On the non-fictional Irish mainland, the Troubles are raging.

Magee chooses a documentary method for including this history. The Troubles insert themselves into The Colony as an intermittent, always violent journal. Every 10 or 20 pages, we read a description of killings, usually of men going about their business in Northern Ireland, and usually by just enough characterisation to give the reader a sense of how they would be missed and mourned.

As the novel proceeds, the islanders begin responding to these passages with regret, anger, emotion – perhaps the passages are radio reports (how the characters hear them isn’t given in the main body of the book, though we can see the research source in the author’s acknowledgement). The terrible passages anchor the novel from the first description of a killing on June 2 through to September 12, 1979.

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It’s worth comparing Magee’s strategy with other fine recent historical novels.

In Damon Galgut’s 2021 Booker Prize winning novel The Promise, each section parallels a moment in South African history (for example, the 1960 Sharpeville massacre and the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela), that moment sitting well in the background of the family drama to the fore.

Meanwhile in the United States, in Booth (2022), Karen Joy Fowler tells a story inevitably heading towards the Lincoln assassination. She uses historical sources as a novelistic input, sometimes using characters’ own letters as a source. As Fowler comments frankly in her afterword, “It is only natural, when reading a historical novel, to want to know which parts are true […] there are things here that I am confident are true and things I know I made up. But there are also things I did not make up, yet am uncertain are true.”

Magee is much more direct in her use of historical material. As well, she lets us see her characters’ thoughts, individuating their internal monologues, so that Lloyd thinks in lists of potential paintings. Masson at one point goes into a detailed history of the threats to the Irish language (here, perhaps too much research ended up on the page, though as background it is an interesting digression); and occasionally we have glimpses into the thoughts and memories of the Irish characters.

And Magee holds back the greatest impact of the colonist on the colonised until the book’s end.