The Colony by Audrey Magee

The Colony: return to the previously existing state of affairs

Be transformed to a windswept place where time is stretched in all directions and can’t be stopped to hold on to tradition, despite the efforts of two big-headed vistors who feel they have a right to exploit it for their own betterment.

It’s the late 1970s. Ireland is weighed down by many events linked to The Troubles. But on an isolated Irish island, apparently separate from the sectarian violence, two men, one an English painter, the other a French linguist, take their residence for the summer. It’s a small island in the Atlantic, a few miles off Ireland’s west coast, and sparsely populated. Both visitors desire, even demand at times, an authentic experience of ‘real’ Irish island life and fancy themselves being better, more fair-headed and more significant than the other.

The painter wants to revive his artistry and paints the cliffs, the elements, the people, but finds that the island already has a painter, albeit one who doesn’t know this himself: the young James (who does not want to be called Seamus). The young islander starts to paint, naively perhaps and unskilled, but full of life and orignality. He is the one who truly captures the island, because he lives it and knows it, and because he has no expectations of it. And the professional painter starts to feed off James’s energy and talent, makes him vague promises.

The linguist wants to save the Gaelic dialect that is fading with the decreasing number of island inhabitants. But as it turns out, he is much more engaged in using the island language for his personal gain: to obtain his professorship through his research of the disappearing language.

The two men compete for being relevant. The islanders seem to do very little, they are very watchful and seem mostly to be above and beyond all the goings-on, perhaps because they know the men will leave as soon as they have found and taken what they came for, purely for themselves, leaving the islanders none the better. And not changing anything, as perhaps it should be.

There is no real climax. After the two visitors have left, the island remains at ever was.

The writing is beautiful, mesmerising at times, especially when words are captured in possible painting titles – and it seems like you have picked up a poetry collection – or when the smallest things are described with such attentiveness and the visitors are described with pungency. But as a reader you remain an onlooker, you are kept at bay. And perhaps that’s how it’s supposed to be. You feel the island, its melancholy, the weight and stagnation of the tradition and even the fleetingness of the one summer that means nothing at all. The book offer a slow and wonderful journey. I have read it from the comfort of my couch but felt utterly transported to the storied outcrop.