Off the Shelf: The Colony
By Audrey Magee
Forrer, Strauss and Giroux ISBN-9780374606527 2022 373 pp. Review by Terrence Kenneally
Magee’s setting is a remote Atlantic Island off Ireland’s west coast, three miles long, with its 1979 population of 92. Her protagonists are a middle-aged English artist (Mr. Lloyd) who hopes to revitalize his career by spending three months painting the landscape and its handful of inhabitants. In his optimistic moments, he imagines making work that will get him talked about as the “Gauguin of the Northern Hemisphere,” doing for this rocky Atlantic outpost what the French primitivist once did for Tahiti.
The other protagonist is a French linguist who goes by the name of J.P., and has returned for a fifth summer to complete his longitudinal study on the inhabitants’ use of Gaelic field work, which he hopes will get him a Ph.D. JP berates the younger inhabitants for occasionally lapsing into English.
These two unlikable protagonists ransack the island for their own ends, each believing that they have its best interests at heart. To underscore that is, in microcosm, the story of England’s ancient and continuing colonization of Ireland.
The author drops in news bulletins from the mainland that chart 1979s summer of sectarian violence between the Provisional IRA and Protestant paramilitaries. Tit-for-tat assassinations become the background mood music, with the sickening crescendo arriving at the end of August, when Lord Mountbatten, the queen’s cousin and a war hero, is blown up with his family while on holiday in County Sligo.
The two men lock horns, like “two bulls in a field,” each mocking the other’s mythologizing of the islanders. It is left to James, Maireado’s teenage son, who JP infuriatingly addresses him as Seamus, to become the go-between.
The text is filled to the brim with smart sentences, intelligent ideas about identity and beautiful prose. The ending is quietly devastating. It has been longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize. It is a TOP SHELF read.
*Terrence J. Kenneally is an attorney and owner of Terrence J. Kenneally & Associates in Rocky River, Ohio. He received his Masters Degree from John Carroll University in Irish Studies and has taught Irish History and Literature.