Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 384 pages; 2022.
When I was undertaking my Master of Journalism in the mid-1990s, I wrote a 5,000-word essay on how the Irish broadcast media was helping preserve and promote the Irish language, particularly in the Gaeltacht districts. I was thinking of how at risk the language was (in the years before the 2003 Official Languages Act was adopted) when I was reading Audrey Magee’s The Colony.
I was also thinking of J.M. Synge’s The Aran Islands, an anthropological study of the people who lived on these ancient rocky islands in Galway Bay, untouched by modernity at the turn of the 19th century, and how he sought to document their traditions and lifestyles before they disappeared forever.
The Colony, an intricately woven novel about the impacts of colonisation on a small island off the west coast of Ireland, is an amalgamation of these subject areas — and it is probably the best book I have read all year (so far).
Visitors and rivals
Jean-Pierre (JP) Masson, a Frenchman, is spending the summer (his fourth) on the island to document the Irish language, which is spoken almost exclusively by the inhabitants, while Mr Lloyd, an artist and an Englishman, is there (for the first time) to document the landscape in his paintings.
The two men become rivals in the sense that they wanted the island and its inhabitants all to themselves for a single summer — Masson believes Lloyd’s presence will affect the integrity of his study because the population will be more inclined to speak English with him. And Lloyd doesn’t like the idea of a noisy Frenchman, flirting with the island’s women and spoiling the peace and quiet he needs to do his art.
Their interleaved narratives are interspersed with short one-paragraph chapters revealing the state of play on the Irish mainland: it’s 1979 and The Troubles are in full swing.
Joseph McKee is walking on Saturday, June 9th to a butcher shop in Belfast, close to the amusement arcade on Castle Street where he works as a doorman. He is thirty-four years old, a Catholic and a member of the Official IRA. Two men from the Ulster Defence Association pull up beside him on a motorbike and shoot him four times in the back of the head, revving the engine to mask the sound of the gun.
A strange dependency
To survive, the islanders, who often make snide and funny comments about their visitors behind their backs (or in Irish), need the rent money Lloyd and Masson pay. The menfolk generally make their living from fishing, but in recent years many have died at sea and there’s a very real fear, especially among the women, that the community will starve when the harsh winter months arrive.
James, one of the young men on the island who spends his days hunting rabbits to supply his mother and grandmother with food for the table, dreams of escaping his adult fate — which is to become a fisherman — and begins to badger Lloyd into teaching him to paint. When he discovers an untapped talent for art, he believes he can head to London and make a different life for himself.
But even with Lloyd’s begrudging support, it’s clear that neither Lloyd nor Masson has any interest in helping the people they are using for their own ends. Once they have done their work, they will head back to England and France respectively and think nothing of the people they have left behind or of the potential harm they may have created by interfering in day-to-day life, if only for a few months.
Allegory and satire
The Colony is a wonderful allegory and biting satire about colonialism in all its oppressive, systematic glory.
Lloyd, who complains about the food and refuses to learn the Irish language, represents the worst of British colonialism; Masson, who is arrogant and demanding but damaged by his own colonial legacy (his mother was Algerian and yearned for her homeland), represents a sense of history repeating itself.
As both bicker and fight and argue with each other, it’s clear that neither party can see the potential long-reaching impact of their presence in a community that has become beholden to their money and influence.
You can’t speak on this. You have spent centuries trying to annihilate this language, this culture.
Lloyd stuck his fork into his tart. He ate two pieces and drank some tea.
France is no better, said Lloyd. Look at Algeria. At Cameroon. At the Pacific Islands.
This is about Ireland, said Masson. About the Irish language.
And do the Irish have a say, said Lloyd, in your great plan for saving the language?
The English don’t, said Masson.
But the islanders aren’t portrayed as weak or inferior. Indeed, the boatman Micheál does take advantage, believing the visitors to be ludicrous, stupid — or both.
Many times I was reminded of the wonderful work of Magnus Mills, whose own fable-like tales have often dealt with similar issues. (A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, for instance, mocks colonialism, while The Field of the Cloth of Gold is about immigration and integration.) Even the mundane dialogue and understated comic moments feel like they have come out of Mills’ playbook.
But the prose style is more elegant, more lyrical than Mills, and often the way it is arranged on the page, stanza-like and with one word per line, it reads like poetry.
I adored The Colony, which was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. It has recently been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award, which will be named in a few days’ time. It would be a deserving winner.
For other reviews, please see Lisa’s at ANZ LitLovers and Susan’s at A Life in Books. Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed it.
This is my fifth and final book from the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist. I am trying to read them all (there are five) before the winner is named at the end of May.