Set on an island off the west coast of Ireland in 1979 in the midst of The Troubles, this is the story of a summer-long visit of an English artist and a French linguist to the island. The island is losing population; fishing can no longer sustain the population and in fact was dangerous in itself. One of the main characters is a widow whose father, brother, and husband were killed the same night while fishing.
The artist, Mr. Lloyd, is an unappealing character who assumes the islanders are there to serve his needs while he imagines himself creating a masterpiece. He makes a connection with the widow’s teenage son who wants to leave the island and become an artist. The French scholar had spent the previous four summers on the island learning Irish, writing a book about it, and had become a relentless advocate for preserving the language. He insisted on calling the teenage boy Seamus rather than his preferred James. The Englishman and the Frenchmen were implacable enemies from the start.
The story (or perhaps more properly “the stories”) of the events of that summer are intense and foreboding. We learn about Masson, the linguist, whose father had met his mother while a soldier in Algeria and had taken her back to France. He had come to despise her as she tried to preserve her way of life and have her son learn her language. Masson’s great enthusiasm for preserving the Irish language was connected in some complicated way to his own background. And then there’s the issue the title refers to between his mother’s country of origin (Algeria) and his father’s (France).
Mr. Lloyd is a pathetic fellow; he hopes to win back the love of his wife, an art gallery owner, with his work of the summer. From the first moment we meet him, his self images are noted in short phrases, for example, “self portrait: preparing canvas with the island boy.” He muses on his unrealistic daydreams for his life when he returns with his masterpiece. When he arrived on the island, he agreed not to paint the people, a promise he broke at the first opportunity. He was shameless in stealing ideas from the teenage boy; James observed to his mother that Lloyd did not even accurately draw the seabirds.
James’ mother Mairéad is a beautiful red-haired woman who always wears a green scarf. Her English improves over the course of that summer and she was willing to imagine her son leaving the island. Her mother always disliked the Englishman. “They think they own the place,” was her comment about the two visitors. While she needs the money the visitors bring, she feels cheated by Michaél who arranges for them to come to the island. Her own mother was quite elderly and was more mellow.
While the stories of that summer were intense and dramatic on their own, they were made all the more so by the interspersed chapters recounting the brutal killings every few days of people at the hands of the IRA and the Ulster Defense Force. The dry, factual reporting of names of those killed, the date, the circumstances, and the organization responsible became a chilling drum beat. During the period between June 3 and September 12 there were 26 killings. On August 27 that summer Lord Mountbatten’s boat was bombed resulting in four deaths: Lord Mountbatten, a 15-year-old schoolboy, one of Mountbatten’s grandsons, and an 83-year-old grandmother.
The unpleasantness of the characters and the message of the various horrors of colonialization was relieved by the descriptions of the beauty of the island, appreciated in particular by Lloyd. He had been moved to come to the island to paint the cliffs. His focused efforts on his work were pleasing to read. A place on the Booker longlist was well deserved, in fact, I’m sorry it wasn’t shortlisted. It’s a brilliant work.
Audrey Magee, The Colony, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2022, 376 pages. (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.