The Colour by Rose Tremain

The Colour

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. TLuminarieshough 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.

110611_1523_TheForestfo1.jpgThey 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.

16 thoughts on “The Colour by Rose Tremain

  1. Excellent review – and even more helpful from a native. : ) I only discovered Tremain recently, reading one of her short story collections, and i enjoyed her writing style. You’ve given me another read to consider. Merci!

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    • Oh, I don’t think I know her short story collections, which one are you reading? I think she’s a relatively reliable author, for a good solid read with well formed characters, especially if you like historical fiction.

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  2. Somehow I managed to miss this Tremain, who is an author whose work I usually try to read within weeks of publication. I’m interested in what you say about her treatment of the subplot. I think too often writers feel they have to include elements to do with the indigenous populations of a country but fail to do the necessary background work, or if they do, are not in a position to interpret what they discover correctly. The exception for me is Kate Grenville when writing about the indigenous Australian peoples. Have you read her work?

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    • I have only read one of Kate Grenville’s books and I recall it was an award winning title, however that is about all I remember, I didn’t get on with that well sadly. I did read That Deadman Dance a few years ago, which wasa very good, by an indigenous author Kim Scott. I’m keen to read more like that, and should probably try and find more.

      I seem to have a greater awareness of music and film in that respect, I remember being a great fan in the 80’s of the Aboriginal Band Yothu Yindi, great music and lyrics, very much on message in terms of their rights and association with the land. I still love their music actually.

      I think Rose Tremain tries to be true to something, but it just didn’t ring true to me, family is too important in Maoridom for a young woman to wander off as Pare does, and even the belief in mythical creatures like the Taniwha (something I believed in myself as a child), is very rooted in practical, logical lessons, the stories and creatures, legends are a way of teaching life lessons. The perceptions of the character here seemed unlikely, but it was not a significant aspect and didn’t really detract from the story.

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  3. A fascinating period in history, the Gold Rush. Even though I’m usually not a big fan of historical novels, I loved how Catton used it as a backdrop for her story in The Luminaries.

    As for The Colour, it does sound good despite your reservations about the subplot. I’ve only read Trespass, which I liked very much. A friend loves Tremain’s work. I’m not sure if she’s read this one, but I’ll let her know about your review.🙂

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    • It is a fascinating era indeed Jacqui and that lure of gold holds within it, so much symbolism and meaning. I loved The Luminaries, though it was missing on reflection, the feminine aspect, I am sure there remain stories to be told about how those that did accompany the men, fared.

      Rose Tremain is a good, reliable author for a gripping historical read and I loved this one all the more for its unique setting.

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