Light below the water

Exploring art and witchcraft
by
June 2022, no. 443

The Colony by Audrey Magee

Faber, $29.99 pb, 376 pp

Book Cover 2 Small

The Leviathan

by Rosie Andrews

Raven Books, $29.99 pb, 312 pp

Light below the water

Exploring art and witchcraft
by
June 2022, no. 443

Two new novels probe national myths and histories, offering insights into the political and religious forces that continue to shape contemporary conflicts.

Set during the height of the Troubles, Irish writer Audrey Magee’s The Colony begins with English artist Mr Lloyd travelling to a remote island off Ireland’s west coast, ‘a rock cutting into the ocean, splitting, splintering, shredding the water’. Lloyd insists on being ferried across by currach rather than by the motorboat the islanders themselves use when crossing to the mainland, a requirement that immediately foregrounds how much of Lloyd’s conception of the island is bound up in romanticised notions of the bleak Irish landscape and the hardy individuals – twelve families in all – who inhabit it.

Also spending summer on the island is Jean-Pierre (JP) Masson, a French academic who is studying the Irish language. He brings with him his own idealistic view of the islanders, imposing on them the burden of preserving the old language. He refuses to call fifteen-year-old Séamus by the anglicised version of his name (James) and demands that Lloyd – who speaks only English – keep his distance from the islanders lest he pollute their native tongue. JP resists arguments that English, for better or worse, is essential to the islander’s economic well-being; that the language is evolving across the generations, just as the physical island itself is changing in the face of rising seas. The changes are subtle, ‘but visible to someone who has watched it, known it, all [their] life’.

Ostensibly, Lloyd has come to paint the cliffs, but his efforts soon focus on his increasingly intimate portraits of James’s widowed mother, Mairéad. In part to keep James from revealing what he is drawing, Lloyd takes him on as an apprentice of sorts. While James attends to Lloyd’s material needs, Lloyd halfheartedly nurtures James’s aesthetic sensibility.

James wants nothing of fishing, ‘that drowning tradition’ that has been the fate of all the men in his family, including his father, grandfather, and uncle, all of whom drowned at sea. Instead, James dreams of studying art in London and exhibiting his work in the city’s galleries.

In a deft rendering of the apprentice who becomes the master, Magee demonstrates Lloyd’s inability to perceive life and nature as it is. Lloyd’s artistic vision – like JP’s conviction that Irish is central to the islander’s ‘thinking, their being’ – is bound up in his own unique history, in the affections, aspirations, and disappointments that have formed him. He envisages the world through the eyes of others, filtered through the pictures he sees in books, the judgements of his ex-wife, and the imagination of artists such as Rembrandt and Gauguin.

It takes James’s innate, unschooled perspective to show Lloyd what he is blind to: ‘You copy what already exists … you’re not understanding the light at all, you have it sitting on the top of the sea but it doesn’t do that … it buries underneath … lighting the water from below as well as above.’

Magee’s novel shares this same quality of light. As was the case with her first novel, The Undertaking (2014, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction), within Magee’s deceptively simple prose there lies a story that is ingeniously layered, themes of national identity, colonisation, and political struggle manifest in both the individual desires of the islanders and the encroaching news of the death and turmoil occurring in Northern Ireland.

The symbolic heart of The Colony is Gauguin’s defining work Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where are We Going? (1897–98). Lloyd adopts it as the template for the major work he paints while he is on the island, the one he is certain will bring him fame. And what Magee offers in The Colony is her own elegantly composed version of Gauguin’s painting, not merely appropriating his work but thoughtfully refiguring its themes of death, destiny, and the failure of representation.

 

Less effective is Rosie Andrews’s The Leviathan. Set largely during the English Civil War (1642–51), The Leviathan skirts around themes of good and evil, sovereignty and enlightenment.

Thomas Treadwater has returned home after fighting with the Parliamentary Roundheads against forces loyal to Charles I. The sheep on his family’s farm are lying dead in the fields, and his father is unconscious in his bed ‘like a scarecrow that had had the stuffing beaten out of him’. Thomas’s sister Esther tells him that two of their serving girls have been blamed for the calamities that have fallen on the house. Subsequently, both have been imprisoned for ‘witchcraft and compacts with the Devil’.

The Leviathan begins as a typical witchcraft tale wherein infirmity and misfortune are read as acts of Satan, with women characteristically scapegoated as the conduits of such acts. However, the novel takes an unexpected turn when all talk of witchcraft is abandoned, it becoming apparent that a more mysterious and malevolent power – a creature that has taken human form – is responsible for the disorder and confusion that has beset not only Thomas but the nation itself.

The remainder of the novel revolves around Thomas’s efforts to discover the why and wherefore of the creature, how it has lain dormant for years in the body of a pious young woman, and why it has chosen this moment in time to unleash its vengeance and wrath.

To assist him in his quest for the truth, Thomas turns to John Milton (yes, that John Milton), his old tutor. Becoming Sherlock Holmes to Thomas’s Watson, Milton leads Thomas on a chase to the edge of the North Sea where the men witness for themselves the ‘monstrous shadow [rising] further out of the water, stirring the sea like a boiling pot’.

Andrews’s intent here seems serious. Even so, The Leviathan – with its earnest narration, heightened language, and an internal logic that doesn’t bear close scrutiny – almost reads as parody. What particularly undermines the novel is Andrews’s inability to imbue the narrative with any genuine sense of terror. Nor is she able to capture the visceral potency of a creature capable of both driving people to suicide and rousing the forces of nature to such an extent that the land is wracked for a full week by torrential rain and cyclonic winds (Andrews manages to shoehorn the Great Storm of 1703 into the narrative by allowing the creature to sleep for sixty years before making its presence felt a second time).

There are resemblances to Sarah Perry’s more convincing The Essex Serpent (2016), a novel which similarly draws on myths of a colossal sea creature, but which, being set in the Victorian era, is more firmly tethered in tensions between science and faith. In contrast, The Leviathan is anchored to neither its historical context nor the discourse of the time, for example debates pivoting around the legitimacy and source of legislative power, the relationship between spirit and matter, and the contract between the individual and the state. Thus, while a diverting enough yarn, The Leviathan fails to establish any broader significance to all its chaos and fury.

Diane Stubbings reviews 'The Colony' by Audrey Magee and 'The Leviathan' by Rosie Andrews

The Colony

by Audrey Magee

Faber, $29.99 pb, 376 pp

Book Cover 2 Small

The Leviathan

by Rosie Andrews

Raven Books, $29.99 pb, 312 pp

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