Hugo Wilcken: Colony

Hugo Wilcken’s second novel Colony was published in the UK straight into paperback in 2007. Saddled by a hopeless cover, lost in the sea of novels published each year, it sank, so far as I can tell, without trace. Or almost without trace. I caught mention of it on Steve Mitchelmore’s blog (“a compelling flight into the unknown … a terrific read”); if one – impossible – way of differentiating the novels in that sea is to read them all, another is to rely on trusted sources. So I picked up a copy about 18 months ago, and left it to languish (that hopeless cover!). It took a couple of days of planes and hotels, without the distractions of other books, to make me read it at last. I was amazed.

Hugo Wilcken: Colony 

Colony was described by Wilcken before publication as “sort of Papillon meets Heart of Darkness.” Steve Mitchelmore saw Cormac McCarthy and Beckett. To those, let me add Damon Galgut, whose seductive combination of dry plotting and unreality are everywhere here. The book’s sometimes elusive nature seems to be reflected in the references to Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. But what impresses most is Wilcken’s unwillingness to try to impress the reader: the prose is unfussy, the scenes uncluttered. There is no ‘fine writing’. Instead, there is very fine writing indeed.

The theme of Colony is escape: from captivity to freedom, and vice versa; from reality into dreams and memories; from one identity to another; from life to elsewhere. It is apt that this is explored in a book which on the face of it has the escapist qualities of a thriller. Wilcken takes us to a penal colony in French Guiana in 1928, where “everyone’s got a scam.” Sabir is a new arrival, just off the boat where, after days of seasick rocking, the “absolute stillness feels as though something that had once been faintly alive has finally died.” The story follows Sabir’s progress in the colony, where the challenges are not just heat, exhaustion and violence, but relentless existence: “the past is dead, the future stolen away, the present an endless desert.” There is the struggle too with “imagination and memory. Which are always wrong. Always telling you what you want to hear.”

All this suggests a book which plays with the reality of its world, as in Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation. But to limit Colony to a genre or type would do it a disservice, as this is a book – as evidenced by the references it suggested to different people above – which unpacks in several different ways. It would also do a disservice to the book and its future readers – I hope there will be many – to outline the plot in any great detail, though I can say that there is a fundamental shift halfway through, and that we are helpfully told that one character “found he could consider two opposing notions and then accept both, without fundamentally believing in either”.

In some ways the characters seem stock types: the hardened criminal; the camp’s fixer; the idealistic commandant and his bored wife. Yet Wilcken’s no-nonsense style enables him to create scenes of great wonder and emotional heft, from death scenes to the tiniest – and therefore most potent – hints of a character’s previously unrevealed childhood. Past, present and future, and how they interconnect, are central to the book.

In any case, the various futures have already been lived out, played out, and all one can do is wearily continue along these set paths. Only the past remains obscure. It hasn’t happened and perhaps it never will.

Colony is an exceptional achievement whose overlooked status is little short of scandalous. If blogs can do one thing, it is to give deserving books like this life beyond their few weeks on the 3-for-2 tables. Having taken up Steve Mitchelmore’s endorsement of it, I can only urge others to do the same, and accept my inchoate view as a recommendation as strong as any I’ve given this year. If you read it and like it, spread the word yourself, by blog or word of mouth. This is a book I was sorry to leave, but simultaneously read through impatiently, keen to see where it would go. Where I will go next is to Wilcken’s first novel, The Execution. “Always a sense of anguish with every departure, however desired.”

Buy Colony from the Book Depository, Amazon (UK or US) or Waterstone’s


  1. Well the Amazon sales rank at the minute is around 991,000, which couldn’t be hard to improve on. But of course I’d rather people bought it from the Book Depository, which wouldn’t affect the Amazon rank. I knew I should have installed one of those Book Depository affiliate buttons…

  2. Cheers for the recommendation – just got it for a penny on Amazon. I see Wilcken also wrote a book on Bowie’s Low which looks intriguing.

  3. Sounds brilliant!! Will definitely read it and spread the word. Thank you for the review.

  4. ‘The Execution’ is really, really good. I read that when it came out in 2001, and looked out for his next book for some time, but it never showed up, and then I forgot about him. These writers who don’t churn out a book every 1-2 years! Now I must get ‘Colony’!

  5. Further to that, though, the wait can be really worth it. I read this little book called ‘The Breezes’ sometime in the 1990s, a genuinely hilarious black comedy about Ireland’s unluckiest family, and waited for the aothor’s next book for ages, Finally, in 2008, Joseph O’Neill writes ‘Netherland’ and everybody notices. Finally I can get my hadsn on his first book, ‘This is the Life’, rushed back into print.

  6. Hooray JRSM, someone who’s read Wilcken! I have ordered The Execution and might even get the Bowie book, though probably when I’ve listened to Low a bit more. So easy to be a completist when the author has written only three books. (Yes, I read the first couple of pages of The Breezes when I saw it reissued the other week, and thought it amusing.)

    I hope people like Colony and spread the word. Do report back, Vivek, Matt and anyone else. Think of this as an experiment in blog power. Of course, where I had middling expectations (one reliable blog review v practically no other coverage of the book), I may now be in danger of raising people’s expectations excessively. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

  7. Hi John,

    Thanks for directing folk to The Book Depository (you can get Hugo’s book here: )

    I think it would be hugely instructive fun to see if we can collectively move this into the bestseller charts (or, you know, at least get a coupla blogs talking about it!)

    I’ll see if I can get an interview with Hugo too (who has been commenting on on a recent piece I wrote about genre: )

    Two plugs in one comment. Nice!


  8. Oddly I haven’t read Papillon myself, John. And like many people, I struggled with Heart of Darkness. But they’re clearly good reference points for this one.

    Good work Mark, I’d seen Hugo Wilcken’s comments on your blog, though I didn’t initially realise it was the same Hugo. I’d love to get people reading this book as I think it not only has high literary ambitions, but is also an extremely atmospheric and gripping read – it’s not too much to say that I couldn’t keep my hands off it for two or three days – so it should have a wide potential readership. It is a most deserving case for blog power, not only because it’s good but because it’s so unfairly obscure.

    Incidentally its Amazon UK sales rank is now 4,633!

  9. If you’re interested Wilcken also wrote about David Bowie’s Low for the 33 1/3 – it is an excellent book and a great companion to the album.

  10. John, Mark et al, I really do applaud this endeavour but I suspect Steve Mitchelmore would be utterly horrified and probably head into acute apoplexy to find a book he’d endorsed then featured on the blog of the “Leni Riefensthal of Richard and Judy’s middle England” as he has rather dubiously labelled me.
    I might do it no favours at all, I mean assuming I enjoyed it I’d be introducing it to thousands of ‘ordinary readers’:-)

  11. Ah but Hugo Wilcken would have no complaints I suspect, dgr – and more to the point, I think you and plenty of your readers (some of whom are also my readers!) would like the book. In the words of Mrs Doylegreyeader, Oh go on.

    deucekindred, yes someone else mentioned the Bowie book, which I became aware of when scanning the net for (very little) info on Wilcken. Thanks for that.

    It looks as though Colony’s Amazon rank has peaked at 3,500 today. Not that sales rank matters of course. Ahem.

  12. The bottom half of the cover is fine… and then you see the top. I think your theory as to why “Colony” fell through the cracks is probably right. With so many bad books making it to bestseller status simply based on clever packaging, there have to be good books disappearing. Of course, I haven’t read this book (wow, I seem so entirely illiterate in these comments!) so I can’t say for sure, but I’ll take your word for it.

    And impressive work with the sales rank. That seems oddly… fast.

  13. John, does your cover match the one shown online? My copy has the figures on the left and the barracks emerging from the right. The figures are also black silhouettes.

    I have to say, I’ve always really liked the cover design! Its sparsity doesn’t give much away.

    As for the John Carey fan endorsing the book, I hope nothing too inaccessible to the masses surging the gates of my intellectual literary Paradiso was found.

  14. Yes Steve, my cover is slightly different too as you indicate, though not so very different that I could be bothered scanning my own copy in. All the images of it online seem to be the same as the one above.

    I have to admit too that I am in a minority re the cover – others on Twitter (where I’ve been busily plugging the book all day) agree with you.

  15. I’d never heard of this book (and, being the offbeat kind of reader who knows when the next Josipovici is coming out but hasn’t read Ian McEwan for decades, feel embarrassed to say so). But this is a fierce recommendation. (The wonder of your reviews, John, is not just the acumen but the generosity, but I’ve learnt to read the appositional phrases – Lasdun’s book ‘is, IN PLACES, the best story collection I have read since …’ Here, no such qualifiers.) And it would be great to see what blog power and online selling can do. (More brackets, sorry, but it seems worth mentioning the absurdity and backwardness, given the intelligence of most blog reviews compared to what’s in the newspapers, of paperback editions preferring some nonsense Daily Express quote for the cover over an Asylum quote.) But I would, meekly, like to remind all that besides Amazon (boo; and please, their ratings are so random as to be nonsense) and Book Depository (hurray), there are independent booksellers too, with rates to pay, who may order in a couple of copies if you ask for one, and it would be nice if these got something out of this too.

  16. Yes of course Charles, re your last point. I suppose I tend to forget since I don’t have any independent bookshops near me. (There’s one on the other side of the city which I don’t get to often.) I do often order online from Jonathan at the Bookseller Crow – a fine independent with a great blog too.

  17. I’ve emailed John Self, but I also wanted to publicly thank him here for his efforts to promote my book. I’m touched, and very pleased that my novel is finally getting some of the consideration I’d always hoped it deserved. Thanks so much, John.

  18. Just thought people might like to know that the author of “Colony” is not the Dr Hugo Wilcken pictured on Twitter… Photos of the real author available, I think, on the Harper Collins website…

    1. No, it appears that Harper Collins are not even up to speed on that… There’s a (fairly recent) photo of Hugo on his agent’s website A.M. Heath…

  19. I joined the club. Between you and Max C. (Pechorin’s Journal), there goes my pocket money.

  20. I enjoyed the book when it first came out (and also the first one) but then I’m biased, being Hugo’s brother ‘n all. But it does strike me as a non-writer that there is a phenomenal amount of luck involved in whether you get noticed or sink without trace. Is there a search engine that could count the number of times a novel gets mentioned in blogs, in order to give some kind of “Readers’ League Table”? Rough and ready and of course corruptible, but if it got known it might provide some kind of counterbalance to Mr Dan Brown.

  21. Thanks everyone. I should have set up some sort of commission deal really.

    Nicholas, you could do a Google Blog Search, which throws up 9 results for Hugo Wilcken Colony. However most of these are links to this review, and it seems that this blog and Steve Mitchelmore’s This Space are the only ones which have written about the book.

  22. Been waiting for a paycheque to clear, and it just has, so I too have just bought ‘Colony’ from the Book Depository. Viva la Wilcken!

  23. Yep. I’m sold on this book. In fact I will even go so far as to bypass Amazon and investigate the Book Depository. However, when I admit that I rather like the book’s cover it might cast some doubt on my judgement, and somewhat reduce the value of the implied compliment…

  24. Fantastic book, John. I should have my review up next Monday, but I wanted to say thanks for pointing out the book and encouraging us to read it!

  25. Yes Trevor. I’m pretty sure that total sales of Colony since I posted the above review have more than doubled (though that is from a very low base, according to Nielsen BookScan figures. As previously indicated, the book wasn’t so much published as dropped from a height). However because most of the purchases have been through Amazon Marketplace, whose sellers I don’t think are registered with Nielsen, most of these sales don’t show up in the official figures. The work goes on! Looking forward to reading your review.

  26. I’ve just finished this, slightly delirious in the battering heat… I enjoyed it a good deal and admired the clipped style and the obviously finely structured narrative. To me it was also a novel about trauma, and specifically WW1 trauma – all the central characters were in some way or another damaged or displaced by the war and like in so much WW1 fiction/non-fiction trauma had fractured time somehow, or assumed its own reality: outside of the usual modes of memory and self-narrative cohesion. Thus events, or at least the apprehension of the events, had been set in motion before those described in the book.

    The other thing I’m surprised no one has mentioned is Ballard. To me the book had very strong Ballardian elements – especially around the notions of the boundaries of the self and landscape/environment, but also in the cryptic nature of surroundings, apparent decodings that lead nowhere…

    I’m also kind of surprised that Steve was a fan as this had some of the elements of the ‘tyranny of narrative’ that I’ve seen him disparage – though with admittedly much left to float free and disperse.

    All in all though, I enjoyed it a lot so cheers for the recommendation.


  27. Matt, I’m delighted you liked it, but even more delighted that you returned to share your thoughts. As to the ‘tyranny of narrative’, I think there is plenty of free-floatingness there which enables Wilcken’s book to escape that criticism. I’d commend a couple of reviews by people who haven’t posted here: this one and this one in particular.

    Ballard is an interesting comparison. I will have to ponder that one.

  28. I was thinking through the Ballard similarities last night and I think there is a good deal of Colony that follows Ballard’s externalisation of an inner landscape – a motif he adapted from the Surrealists. I think this fits Sabir’s character more snugly but it’s there in Manne also.

    And to continue the odious comparisons, it also has elements of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, although both texts have obviously different political connotations.

    Anyway, enough of the rambling!



  29. OK, I’ve just finished this as well. A wonderful book, as you said. I’m not sure that I have any central points to my thoughts, so just some observations to throw into the mix:

    * I can definitely see where Matt’s coming from with the Ballard comparisons, though with Ballard it’s often the case that characters other than the ‘hero’/narrator, there not much sense of reality to them. In ‘Colony’, even though the secondary characters sometimes are stock types, as John said, they feel real.

    * To add to the Ballard and Galgut and McCarthy and Beckett comparisons, I’ll add a couple of others: Camus’ Algerian-set stories, and the excellent early Simenon, ‘Tropic Moon’.

    * Although Wilcken’s long UK and France residencies suggest he’s not hugely enamoured of his native Australia, I wonder if the colonial history here influenced his writing at all. Australia started as a similarly open penal settlement, with prisoners having freedom of movement (since where could they escape to?), but unlike the French colony here melting back into the tropical heat, Australia somehow survived and blossomed into a functioning society.

    * Though I imagine Wilcken has never been a prisoner in a primitive penal colony, the authority with which he writes about life in one is incredibly convincing. So too is the strange backwardness of the place, so that the occasional intrusions of the Twentieth Century, like the biplane over the river, or talk of telephone lines, really strike the reader as forcefully strange. It’s odd thinking that back home in Sabir’s Paris, the Jazz Age is in full force.

    I’ll stop wittering on here, but thanks for reviewing this book and bringing it to everybody’s attention. It’s great stuff. And everyone should read ‘The Execution’!

    1. Er, by telephone, I mean gramophone. Sorry for the rambling nature of my comment–I jumped online immediately after finishing the book, all fired up, and made only limited amounts of sense.

  30. I recently finished Colony and just posted my review. This is an absolutely marvellous book. I haven’t read everyone else’s reviews as I wanted to keep my mind clear of others’ thoughts.

    Colony is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’m so impressed that I bought a couple of copies to send to friends.

    I have to say, though, that it disturbs me that I’d never heard of this book–not a single peep. What a shame as Colony deserves so much more.

    On another note, I bought a copy of The Execution.
    So thanks for the recommendation.

  31. Thanks for the link and for reviewing it, dk. I’m pleased too that you were so honest in your response. It’s interesting what you say about plot points requiring expansion: one of my favourite things about the book was Wilcken’s refusal to (what I considered to be) over-explain certain things, and to leave them brief – letting the reader fill in the detail. To each his own, and all that!

  32. A couple of reviews of Colony which I don’t think have been linked to here before: one from Simon at Inside Books; and one from Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations. Guy, you mentioned your review earlier but there was no link and I’d forgotten your blog address so didn’t see it until now!

  33. Thanks for the wonderful recommendation. Just finished reading it and I would say it would be in my top five books read this year. I agree with you, John, that Wilcken didn’t feel the need to over explain or to spell everything out for the reader. This is a book that I will think about long after it is returned to my bookshelf. A worthy inclusion in your Twelve from the Shelves list for 2009.

  34. I’m delighted you liked it, Joanne. I have held off reading Wilcken’s other novel The Execution so that I have something exciting to look forward to when there’s nothing else I want to read. I think he’s a significant talent, sadly overlooked at least in this country.

  35. Wow. It’s over a year since I bought it, and I just finished reading it. I really honestly don’t know what to make of it. The comparison to Damon Galgut (particularly The Good Doctor) is probably the closest for me.

  36. Thanks Paul, I’m glad you got around to it and hope your comparison to Galgut is a positive one (as it is for me).

    I believe Wilcken is nearing completion of his new novel, set (according to an interview Will Rycroft did with him) in 1940s New York. I look forward to that eagerly.

  37. I bought Colony quite recently based on a memory of your review, John, and was enthralled. The prose is clear and unaffected and builds scenes of great atmosphere and seeming authenticity. I liked the tension between the desire for escape (from the colony, the heat, one’s nature, etc.) and the heavy sense of futility that lies atop all that and seeps into its cracks. It’s a deft turn, akin to how the story both succeeds as page-turning plot yet undermines itself fundamentally at intervals, without once frustrating the reader (this one, anyway). For 350 pages I felt under a melancholy kind of spell.

    If I might add to the short list of reference points: it reminded me a little of Denis Johnson, especially Fiskadoro and Tree of Smoke: it has a similar feeling of ruin and hopelessness and stubborn concern with efforts to outrun or transcend their pull. Structurally (and in some ways thematically) it reminded me of Mulholland Drive, of all things.

    Now to read some of the reviews linked in the comments here.

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