Faber. 2022. 376 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 36760 3.
Mr Lloyd is an artist who describes himself as "'half married" to his artist/art-dealer wife. She now prefers another man and his "loud," "declamatory" art and has pronounced Lloyd's art, "Too predictable. Too boring. A likeness, yes, but nothing more. Nothing more than a photograph."
In an attempt to revitalize his art and his marriage, Lloyd is seeking authenticity, so he embarks on a terrifying sea-voyage, choosing to be rowed to a tiny island off the west coast of Ireland in a leaky currach:
The boatmen dropped the sticks into the water.
Are they oars?
They are indeed Mr Lloyd.
They have no blades. No paddles.
Some do. Some don't.
Don't you need them?
If we get there, we don't.
On the island he plans to paint the sea, the cliffs, the birds, and "to create them / as they already are." As an artist, he sees a vivid world of colors, shapes, light, and he habitually thinks of the images he will produce:
Self portrait: with gulls and rocks
Self portrait: with boatman, gull and rocks...
Island series: view from the boat I... II... III
Self portrait: drowning 1... II... III... IV
How much longer?
A while yet Mr Lloyd.
The island is only three miles long and half-a-mile wide and is inhabited by fewer than 100 people, most of whom speak no English. "Those with good English have left," says Micheal, who rows the currach and has rented Lloyd one of the cottages he manages for his brother, who now lives in America. He has also arranged for Lloyd's meals to be provided by the Gillan family. Francis Gillan is only on the island occasionally and is trying to persuade his widowed sister-in-law, Mairéad, to accept him; Mairéad and her mother, Bean Ui Neill, cook for visitors and understand a little English but choose not to speak it; Bean Ui Fhloinn, the 92-year-old matriarch of the family, has no English at all; and Mairéad's 15-year-old son, Seamus, chooses to speak English rather than Irish, and is determined to be called James.
"Is your dad a fisherman? Lloyd asks James.
"Used to be."
"Have I met him? Where is he?"
"At the bottom of the sea. With my granddad and uncle. Three of them. One fishing trip."
Understandably, James is determined not to be a fisherman. He becomes fascinated by Lloyd's work, persuades him to let him try drawing and painting, and turns out to have a natural talent for it.
Lloyd plans to stay on the island all summer, and he is dismayed when another man turns up, a French linguist, who specializes "in languages threatened with extinction" and has been documenting changes in the Irish language on the island for his academic thesis. For four years he has spent every summer on the island recording Bean Ui Fhloinn as "the last of the pure Irish speakers," and he is vehement only Irish should be spoken when he is at meals with the Gillan family.
Lloyd and Jean-Pierre Masson (known as JP) immediately antagonize each other. Lloyd suggests Masson is trying to save a dead language: Masson sarcastically suggests Lloyd is "another painter who wants to be Monet." They argue about art, history, the Irish "Troubles" which are ongoing, and language and colonialism: "You have spent centuries trying to annihilate this language, this culture," says Masson. "France is no better, said Lloyd. Look at Algeria. At Cameroon. At the Pacific Islands." Significantly, in a book which documents the changes the two men inadvertently make to the islanders as they pursue their own ambitions, they quarrel over the shared turf-pile which has been left at the cottages for their fires.
Imagine that, said Mairéad. A Frenchman and an Englishman squabbling over our turf.
They've been squabbling over our turf for centuries, said Francis.
Neither man wants to be in a cottage next to the other, so Lloyd moves to a derelict hut on another part of the island but still sometimes uses the cottage and is fed by the Gillans.
Magee writes fluently and imaginatively. Each character comes to life as an individual with an inner world of their own, and their conversations, humor, and emotions carry the main story easily and enjoyably. Interspersed between chapters, however, are stark, coldly objective reports of the 1979 atrocities in Ireland. Details of the attack are listed, and the dead are named along with their occupation, family, and their political background (if any).
John Patrick Hardy is having dinner with six of his ten children at his home in North Belfast on Tuesday, August 28th. It is just before five in the evening, and someone knocks at the front door. He walks from the kitchen through the hall and opens the door. A man shoots him in the chest...
Often the victims of bomb blasts and shootings are simply people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. "Collateral damage," says Frances Gillan when Mairéad is horrified by the deaths of children. "That's the way of it."
Balancing these stark reports, there is much light and laughter and beauty in this book, especially in the interchanges of Lloyd and James as they both immerse themselves in their art. The Gillans and Micheal share good-natured jokes about Lloyd and JP. Mairéad dreams of being a woman in a Rembrandt painting. Lloyd dreams of the future exhibition of his new art and the praise this will garner; James dreams of leaving the island and being an artist; Bean Ui Fhloinn tells JP about her long life on the island and how things have changed; and JP remembers his own difficult early life as a child of a French father and Algerian mother.
JP also dreams of his academic success and of bringing photographers to film this old Irish woman and the island. Meditating on his future success, he outlines his thesis, and in doing so outlines the history of the British occupation of Ireland and the resulting suppression of the Irish language.
In the end, in spite of the pleasures of Magee's fine story-telling, there is an underlying theme to this book. Lloyd and JP come to the island because it has something they want, they use the people for their own ends, change lives and language, then return to their own countries, and leave their mess behind. All this can be seen as an allegory for colonialism everywhere, but especially in Ireland. The ending of the book, too, made me think that this is, in fact, an angry book.
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