It’s been a long time since I have read a Rose Tremain book; I think Music and Silence was the last one I read, I remember that she is a captivating storyteller and creates interesting characters, as she has done here with The Colour.
I was intrigued to read it too, because it is set in New Zealand (where I am from originally), a location rare to find in literature outside homegrown, Rose Tremain being a British author.
Similarly to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (reviewed here), The Colour is set in the South Island during the gold rush period. Though in contrast to that epic tome that won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, Rose Tremain’s novel features only one man seduced by the gold or and gives us an insight into two women, Harriet his wife and Lilian his mothers, their hopes, achievements and personal struggles in trying to make a life in this untamed country.
Joseph and Harriet Blackstone depart England as newlyweds, arriving in Christchurch, from where they buy land in isolated countryside near a river, signifying a new beginning for them all including Joseph’s mother Lilian, although she quickly begins to make plans in her head about how she might leave her son’s newly constructed Cob House, to return to the more civilised town.
Harriet had felt stifled in England and was almost resigned to her state as a spinster governess, until Joseph’s surprise engagement and a chance for her to start anew, to create a new life for them in this foreign land, which bore little of the attitudes and social stratification of home.
“Harriet had asked her new husband to take her with him. She clung to him and pleaded – she who never whined or complained, who carried herself so well. But she was a woman who longed for the unfamiliar and the strange. As a child, she’d seen it waiting for her, in dreams or in the colossal darkness of the sky: some wild world which lay outside the realm of everything she knew.”
Joseph and Lilian were also fleeing something, although their memories and associations were a little more shameful and sinister, secrets they keep from others, that continue to haunt them on the other side of the world, distance found insufficient to wipe their conscience clean of the past.
They know it will be a tough existence and they will need to learn from mistakes, as all pioneers do, but they find the challenges of this harsh Canterbury landscape almost soul destroying and Joseph is quickly lured away by the glitter and promise of gold dust he finds in his river and soon sets off to join the other men, also seduced by their lust for “the colour”, in new goldfields over the Southern Alps, leaving the two women to fend for themselves.
‘I must go,’ he said. ‘I must go before all the gold is gone.’
‘And if there isn’t gold?’
‘Men are not risking their lives for nothing, Harriet.’
‘Men are risking their lives in the hope of something. That is all.”
‘I have dreams about the Grey River. I shall come back with enough…enough gold to transform our world.’
‘What have we been doing for all these months,’ she said, but endeavouring to “transform our world”?’
Harriet befriends a family that is succeeding in making a living as they hope to, a horse ride away at Orchard House, although they too have their share of difficulty with their son Edwin and his longing for the Maori nanny they’d let go after an accident. Edwin has a strong spiritual connection with Pare, something his parents don’t understand and are afraid of, as they believe her enchantment over him is making him I’ll.
Overall, it is an enjoyable, entertaining and quietly gripping read with a well-rounded character whose development and journey captivates the reader.
Its only weakness for me, was the subplot featuring Pare, the Maori nanny, her superstitions and behaviours seemed odd to me, somewhat fantastical, bordering on magical realism, a little patronising in terms of my understanding and experience of the legends, culture and tradition I grew up with, though perhaps reminiscent of the colonial attitude of that era and beyond.