Since Magee was nominated for the Booker Prize, I thought I’d re-post this audiobook review of the nominated title.
I didn’t know what I was getting when I started listening to Audrey Magee’s The Colony and, to be honest, I was leery, having read “somewhere” that her prose is lyrical and breaks down, in a good way I assume was suggested, from the weight of her weighty themes. What I listened to, however, was less experimental, more compelling and thought-provoking. Because listening doesn’t come as easily as silent reading, I workd hard to follow the events and understand the characters. Stephen Hogan’s narration was excellent, clear, articulated, and with a particularly engaging gruffness to Magee’s Englishman painter, known only as Mr. Lloyd.
While ideas were complex and thought-provoking, the novel was cold. I didn’t like the characters and remained emotionally unengaged. Which is all right, it’s a kind of literary experience which I can appreciate if it makes me think. And The Colony makes you think. It opens with Mr. Lloyd’s arrival on the island by “curragh,” which he insists on for the authenticity of the experience. *eye roll* The islanders are sarcastic, sardonic, and laconic, and Lloyd, well, he’s a not-cute curmudgeon and snob. His thoughts, (often echoing the artist Magee wants us to consider as Lloyd’s painterly double, Gauguin, an artist I can’t stand) show a struggle with capturing the island: landscape, seascape, people-scape. The islanders, on the other hand, asked him not to paint them and he breaks his word within days of arrival…because that’s what an exploiter does, break words and suit needs, his art, his “vision”.
Lloyd’s arrival is followed by Jean-Pierre Masson’s, a linguist who has been coming to the island for years, working on his dissertation honouring and preserving Gaelic. Lloyd’s and Masson’s intrustions reminded me of the first principal of my sole anthropology course: anyone who enters a culture, by virtue of their mere presence, no matter how unobtrusive, will inevitably change it. Lloyd is too self-absorbed to be bothered by this and Masson too much of a romanticizing idiot. They each have their own version of the island to exploit, and at core, are mainly interested in furthering their careers; the islanders, who are not the monolith I seem to suggest thus far, are a mix of what we find in any culture: like Aeneas, carrying the past and working to living their lives as independent beings.
Magee uses the “life-boat” convention to shape narrative: take a group of people, add tension and conflict because of personality and circumstance and let them interact in a wildly beautiful, circumscribed context. A tale as old as Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The question Golding and Magee pose: what of the outside world, what is happening “out there” that can foil, reflect, or contrast with the island? Golding destroys the known world via atomic annihilation and leaves his “boys” adrift to reenact ancient, inherent cruelties.
Magee too wants to account for history: she alternates chapters about the island’s people, guests, and events with Northern Ireland’s 1979 “troubles”. She juxtaposes historical time against the island’s timelessness, current events, present in the news cycle, with what underlies them: the colony and its exploiters. The island is, in effect, both past and present, but not current. (I’m still uncertain if this works and can point to Binet’s HHhH greater interweaving of history and fiction as a more successful, elegant attempt? Maybe because Binet solves the problem, which neither Golding or Magee do, by creating that self-deprecating first-person narrator? Golding and Magee opt for the omniscient third-person and a separation of history and fiction. Binet’s is the more successful attempt because he posits the idea that they are too alike, that is, historiography and novel-writing, to be placed “outside” fictive events and character. I leave this parenthetical because I’m not sure of it yet, but it’s food for thought.)
What succeeds is Magee’s characterization. Though Lloyd is not likeable, he is compelling: his obsession with capturing the island’s flora and fauna, rock-face, sea, animals, eventually the islanders. His ruminations about his shifting role in this landscape, often exclamatory statements (“Self portrait: going native” he muses to start, more *eye rolling* from me) envisioned as would-be self-portraits. What makes him near likeability, though never quite, are his meditations on Rembrandt, the great Dutch interior painters, and then, the lapses into angry comparison, his resentment of Freud’s and Bacon’s successes. (I chuckled.) For Lloyd is a representational artist and acknowledges his passé style, but persists, modeling himself on Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Gauguin.
Masson’s story, on the other hand, hit close to home. As a Quebecer, language is a fraught issue: we size each other up, francophone? anglophone? allophone? negotiate everyday interactions with side-eyes that anywhere else in N. America would remain neutral exchanges. And our history is layered: as English dominated French, as French now dominates English and as both practised and practise a heinous erasure on Indigenous peoples and their languages, First Nations and Inuit.
Masson’s back-story makes him a hypocrite: he is a scholar who wants to establish his career on his championing of Gaelic, a “dying” language to be preserved, he argues, for its beauty. He hates the Englishman Lloyd and what his kind wrought in Ireland and yet, he, I think, compensates for his own “linguistic” failures by upholding Gaelic. For Masson is not “wholly” French, thanks to an Algerian mother, who tried, through his childhood, to teach him classical Arabic. His father, a racist who met his mother fighting in Algeria, is no better than the English colonizers and France is certainly no model of tolerance and inclusion in North Africa. As a child, Masson may not have “sided” with his father, but he resisted his mother’s attempts, wanting only to be French, to speak French, to get as far away from the Arabic community as he could get.
Both of these middle-aged men, carrying their countries’ exploitative natures, have their true natures revealed in their interactions with James, the son of one of the women who rent their cottages to the strangers, feed and clean up after them. Masson is annoyed with James for not wanting to become a fisherman like his father, grandfather, and generations of island men before them, annoyed because James insists on speaking English. Masson wants James to stay put, stay on, and become petrified in the past, so that James can enact loyalties Masson could not. James has other ideas, other aspirations. James wants to be an artist and asks Mr. Lloyd to help and teach him. In the end, in a final irony, Mr. Lloyd’s magnus opus is mere pastiche and derivation and the islanders, victims of Lloyd’s and Masson’s betrayals. I think not. Magee posits not by giving the islanders a strong sense of self and agency. I don’t know that I would have made it through Magee’s novel if I silent-read rather than listened to it, but the audiobook format helped me appreciate it and I would recommend it.
I am grateful to Dreamscape Media for the opportunity to listen to and review this audiobook, which they provided via Netgalley.