Audrey Magee simply has to write. It’s as essential to her, as breathing. It’s through writing that she works out what she thinks about the world and explores its many complexities. She conveys and illustrates these concepts like an artist applying multi layers of paint. And it’s a painter, Mr Lloyd, who drives the drama in her long awaited second novel, The Colony.
But when she says that she couldn’t be anything but a writer – that she’s tried everything else, she’s being a bit disingenuous. It’s not that she hasn’t the ability to pursue other careers; a skilled linguist, she started her working life as a high-flying journalist. But that profession didn’t give her room to explore all the thoughts that filled her head.
“I loved being a journalist,” she says, when we meet over coffee in her native Enniskerry, County Wicklow. “But I couldn’t go deep enough. I couldn’t plunge in the way I wanted to. I like to take an idea, throw it at the table and see if I can find a tiny spec of gold to work with. I rebuild around it, and keep digging to see if I can find another spec.”
Audrey’s life experience has informed both of her books. Having studied French and German at University College Dublin, she lived in Germany, and during her time there, visited Dachau Concentration Camp. She met a woman living on the boundary with the camp, who was struggling with the concept that, as a bystander, she could be in any way involved with the atrocity.
“There’s that silence,” she says. “As a German, how do you cope with the impact of fascism?”
It was a question she explored in The Undertaking, her debut about an ordinary young German couple who get up caught up in the horror of WW2, and in the aftermath, feel a residue of guilt. Highly praised, The Undertaking was translated into 10 languages, was shortlisted for several prestigious awards including the Women’s Prize for Fiction and France’s Festival du Premier Roman, and is currently being adapted for film.
Having travelled the world, Audrey took an MA in journalism at Dublin City University before freelancing for The Irish Times, the Guardian and Observer.
“I was the Dublin stringer for 4- or 5-years covering events like the war in Bosnia – Conor Brady kept sending me away – then I became Ireland correspondent for the London Times, covering Ireland for an external audience.”
She divided her time between the North – at the time of The Good Friday Agreement, the Omagh Bomb, and Mo Mowlam’s visit to the Maze – and West Cork – where strange things were happening, including the murder of Sophie Tuscan Du Plantier. But by 2002, Audrey had given birth to the first two of her three daughters, so travelling was becoming less tenable. It was time to concentrate on fiction.
The Undertaking was published in 2014, and for her follow up, Audrey decided to enlarge on the idea of colonisation – a subject that has fascinated her since her student years.
“In Ireland we don’t see ourselves as colonised – it was a long time ago – but those control mechanisms have become more latent and therefore harder to unpick. We don’t write about these things, but what is it to be colonised? Where are the legacies, not only by England, which is obviously the big one, but then by the Church, by Rome? We swapped one system for the other and there were incredible consequences for Irish women, in particular. So many people in Ireland didn’t want to be part of that system.”
The Colony is based on a tiny Irish Island where Irish is still, almost exclusively, spoken. It’s the summer of 1969, and an English artist, Mr Lloyd, is setting out there to spend the summer in splendid isolation, in the hope of finding renewed artistic inspiration. He’s dismayed when, just days later, Masson, a French linguist arrives on his annual visit, writing on the preservation of the Irish language. The two men clash – and, literally, fight over the turf.
Both are using the islanders; Masson interviews them for his thesis, and Mr Lloyd persuades the beautiful Mairead to pose for him. And he, rather grudgingly, allows Mairead’s son, James, to become his apprentice.
In essence, the Colony is a metaphor for Ireland. The text is broken up with accounts of every sectarian death that occurred that summer, and the author shows the effect of that violence on the islanders.
“I was questioning, what is the impact of the violence on us in the South? What is the drumbeat on the ordinary person?”
Brexit happened during the writing process, and Audrey mirrors the trauma of this in Mr Lloyd’s subsequent behaviour to his talented protegee.
“We had a deal over Northern Ireland, and Britain just walked away,” she says. “I had dinner with John Hume in Strasberg in 1991, where he laid out his whole plan. He implemented this plan for us to be in this borderless, almost non-religious country and we were reaching that point before Brexit.
“The core of our relationship with Britain is that we can go so far but no further. Why is this? Is it control, or is it just a sense of feeling threatened?” Clearly frustrated, she says, “Now that it’s gone, can we start negotiating a new deal? Something has to happen because at the moment there’s a vacuum. Is a move to a united Ireland inevitable now, and how do we find the least painful and traumatic way of doing that?”
The Colony is a glorious read; hugely impressive, immersive and thought provoking, it’s filled with fascinating debate, and no little humour.
“It was fun to write,” says Audrey. “With The Undertaking I had to work within very tight parameters. I couldn’t have the conversations I wanted to have because I was writing about a bunch of locked down, locked in people. This one was more of a prism or tapestry. You are seeing so many different angles and things going on.
“It was such fun to have Lloyd and Masson – two bulls in a field, and also as Masson comes with his intellect, I was able to have the discussion about the Irish language – does it matter if it’s preserved? It takes an outsider, I believe, to have this conversation.”
Writing in term time – and gorging on other people’s work during the school holidays, Audrey has been writing The Colony since 2015.
“I write 400 words a day, and the next day I edit those words and write 400 more. That’s a good day. I get to the end after a couple of years. Then I start again and go through the manuscript and through it. I’m a nit comber, building more in and creating more textures. I go over it, layer and layer until I’ve probably gone completely mad, then I let it go.”
Covid came at an ideal time.
“When it happened, I was at a point where I desperately needed more time. It was traumatic for the kids, but for me, as a writer it was a time to finish and ferment the novel – a great time, because you were able to retreat from the world even further.”
Audrey never talks about her book in progress, but she’s excited about her third novel.
“I’m more confident,” she says. “With the second book it was hard because you don’t know if you just got lucky the first time, but I feel at home in my publishing house now. It’s like finding a home and settling in. I can now build my life and my confidence.”
The Colony by Audrey Magee is published by Faber. €15.36. Kindle: €5.40.
Published in the Irish Examiner on 9th April.
© Sue J Leonard. 2022.