THE COLONY – Audrey Magee

My second read of the 2022 Booker Prize longlist was Audrey Magee’s The Colony (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022).  While it clearly drips with Booker-type, it didn’t work for me because of an intense hatred or general indifference for the characters (excluding James and his mother).

During the summer of 1979, while Ireland is rocked with violence, an English artist and a French scholar descend upon a remote island in Ireland where the few inhabitants cling to a dying language and dying way of life.  Mr. Lloyd has arrived in the hopes of breathing new life into his drab art after his wife left him for someone more talented.  He claims he’s there to paint the cliffs and promises not to paint the people.  It’s a promise he never intended to keep, and the people immediately become his subjects.  Mr. Masson has channeled his inner demons of growing up with a French father and an Algerian mother (who had to give up her language) into studying and encouraging preservation of the Irish language spoken on the island.  Both men use the inhabitants as a means to their end of perceived glory and renown, and they’re both awful.

James is the youngest inhabitant of the island.  His father drowned while fishing, and James is adamant that he will get off the island and never he a fisherman.  Mr. Lloyd tolerates the teen, and James is the first inhabitant he draws.  James has a talent for art and shows Mr. Lloyd how his birds are wrong and how he hasn’t properly captured the light in the ocean.  Mr. Lloyd takes his tips and improves his work, promising the boy he is going to take him back to London with him and they’ll have an art show.  Their banter, while Lloyd is a selfish little man, peppers the novel with a bit of cheek and humor.  Ultimately Lloyd steals James’s art concepts, copying his work and incorporating it into his own with no intention of giving the boy credit or of taking him to London.  In the most heartbreaking scene of the novel, Lloyd paints over an image of James holding paint brushes and rabbits, replacing them with fish – making the boy the one thing he never wanted to be – a fisherman on the island.

So much of the novel is from the perception of the outsiders, but there are passages where neither the Englishman nor the Frenchman are present. These few but beautiful sections give barely a taste of who these people actually are – so much of the perception of James and his mother, let alone the others, is just colored by the interactions with Lloyd and Masson.  This was an intentional choice, but it just didn’t work for me.

The novel is broken up with news sections recounting the violence throughout Ireland.  As the novel progresses, the inhabitants discuss the attacks, and those sections join the thread of the story. This works extremely well.

The prose is beautiful, but it gets a bit murky sometimes.  The rhythm and cadence are such that you can hear the water lapping at the currach, the cry of the terns, the charcoal scratching on paper, the unfurling of long red hair, a woman slipping out of her clothes, a man sighing.

I didn’t like this book, but it was extremely well done.

Booker count: 2 of 13

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