Mr Lloyd is more concerned about the security of his paints, brushes, and easel than his own safety as he embarks for the island. However, during the crossing his concerns for his safety become paramount, and he questions his choice of the little currach for the voyage.
One page then interrupts this journey. One page in which a policeman and his friend are shot dead on the streets of Armagh. Two Protestant men killed by the IRA. These one-page intervals become a regular occurrence, each of them short stories of violence, death, the English, and the IRA. These random pages in a book pop up like the random attacks in Northern Ireland. A deft touch from Magee.
The destination of the trip is a tiny island, more of a rock really, with a dwindling population. Mr Lloyd is there ostensibly to paint the wild, rugged, cliffs of this island. He keeps being reminded by the inhabitants that he is not to paint them, only the cliffs. Secretly, the inhabitants and their life on the island is his true intention.
A few days after he arrives a Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Masson, arrives on the mail boat. Masson is a linguist and travels to the Island to study Gaelic, which is threatened with extinction. He is trying to preserve, save, the dying language by writing a book. Mr Lloyd believes he is too late. The two take an almost immediate dislike to each other. Mr Lloyd thinks that it is inevitable that the language will die, while Jean-Pierre, or JP, is tired of the English destroying tradition, banning the inhabitants from speaking anything but Irish.
James is a young boy, who is trapped on the island. There is nothing worse, he believes than following in the footsteps of his deceased father, living out his life as a fisherman on the desolate island. He asks Mr Lloyd if he can paint with him, and an escape from the island becomes possible. Mr Lloyd agrees to take him on as an apprentice and take him back with him to London. James is a natural artist, and Mr Lloyd promises to let James join his exhibition in London. A promise akin to promises made by colonizing powers.
Magee’s prose throughout the book borders on the poetical, with many paragraphs containing nothing more than four or five one-word sentences. The reader will either love this style or may find it a little jarring.
Throughout the whole novel there is a feeling of a looming confrontation between the English Artist and the French linguist. Both representations of their respective colonizing empires, and this is a definite theme. In this instance, the English with Ireland, and the French with Algeria. While the pages that pop up about the attacks and killings in Northern Ireland remind the reader of the inevitable violence of colonization, JP and his efforts to save the language, remind us of the loss of culture and language. Also, much like a colonizing empire, both men believe they are helping the island. Mr Lloyd believes that his paintings will bring tourists to the island and revitalize it, while JP, believes that he can save its culture and tradition. Meanwhile the island, a symbol for sure, would be better off without interference.
A novel that is much deeper than you first think.
Audrey Magee worked for twelve years as a journalist and has written for, among others, The Times, The Irish Times, the Observer and Guardian. She studied German and French at University College Dublin and journalism at Dublin City University. She lives in Wicklow with her husband and three daughters. The Undertaking is her first novel.
In her 20s and 30s, she travelled extensively, first as a student, living in Germany and Australia, where she taught English; later as a journalist, covering, among many other issues, the war in Bosnia, child labour in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the impact of Perestroika on Central Asia. She was Ireland Correspondent of The Times for six years, and wrote extensively about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the subsequent peace process and the chaos caused by the Omagh bomb.
An interview from HarvardBookStore.