In 2014, Audrey Magee announced her arrival on the literary scene with “The Undertaking,” a powerful and perceptive debut that illuminated some of the calamities of World War II through the separate ordeals of a German husband and wife — hers domestic on the home front, his militaristic on the Eastern Front. Eight years on from that debut, the Irish author returns with a follow-up. “The Colony” plays out in a smaller space to that of its predecessor but it proves fertile ground for exploring big ideas, widespread tensions and fatal consequences.
The book opens with Mr. Lloyd, an English artist, heading out to sea in a fragile hand-rowed currach. His destination is a remote island of only 92 inhabitants off the west coast of Ireland. His aim is to spend the summer of 1979 painting cliffs. “I like being on the edge,” he tells 15-year-old James, one of the few islanders who speaks English and isn’t put out by his presence.
Just as Lloyd is adapting to the rhythms of island life, along comes another outsider. Jean-Pierre Masson, a French linguist who specializes in “languages threatened with extinction,” has been visiting the island for the past five years as part of a project to write a history of Gaelic. Unlike Lloyd, he can communicate with the locals and has earned their trust. When Masson moves into the cottage next to Lloyd’s, each man accuses the other of encroaching upon his turf and causing a disruption: Lloyd needs solitude and silence to paint; Masson needs full immersion in the Irish language and no proximity to an English speaker.
As their rivalry intensifies — and as Lloyd works away at his “Irish version of a Gauguin painting” — the people on whose land they have briefly settled slide into sharper focus. Mairéad, a young widow, starts to pose for Lloyd in secret as a nude life model; her hotheaded brother-in-law Francis unleashes his jealousy and displays his political colors; and James, her son, discovers his artistic potential, turns his back on a career as a fisherman, and decides to follow Lloyd to London.
Magee skillfully traces the disintegration of old certainties and best-laid plans on the island. Interspersed with this main narrative are snapshots of a bigger, more devastating picture, that of Northern Ireland engulfed by sectarian violence. Short, sobering reportage of tit-for-tat atrocities read like a catalog of brutality. Killings become so frequent that it isn’t long before news of them radiates down to the island in a series of shock waves that infuse conversations and inform opinions.
Magee tells her tale in other interesting ways. Her characters’ dialogue is terse and direct. Some inner thoughts are relayed as streams of consciousness, others as snatches of verse: “isolated beauty / continent’s outpost / empire’s edge.” From this patchwork prose, Magee weaves a vivid, thought-provoking novel about language, art, colonialism and the Troubles.