Friday, August 17, 2012

499. The Colour – Rose Tremain

History: Published in 2003, this book is set in New Zealand. 
Plot: Joseph and Harriet Blackstone, and Joseph's mother Lilian, are immigrants from England on the SS Albert into the South Island of New Zealand in 1860s. After settling the two women into accommodation in Christchurch, Joseph travels to the foothills near the Okuku river to build their Cob House. Joseph returns to Christchurch once the house has been built and the three of them set off to start their new lives on their farm.
The harsh first winter brings with it problems which threaten the viability of their farm, but Joseph's chance finding of gold in the nearby creek changes the situation. Not telling Harriet about the find, Joseph abandons the farm and travels by boat to Hokitika on the West Coast of the South Island where major gold strikes have occurred.
After Lilian's death, Harriet also travels to Hokitika and delivers that news to Joseph. The search for gold, the 'colour', goes on in difficult conditions. Joseph's encounters with Will Sefton, a young man whom he met on the boat bringing them to the West Coast, and Pao Yi, a Chinese gardener befriended by Harriet, add flavour to the dynamics of the searching couple's relationship which has become distant and strained. Joseph's guilt surrounding events in England prior to their emigration impact on this separation.
Review: The Colour finds oneself on the edge of survival in the bleak plains of New Zealand's South Island, with Harriet and Joseph Blackstone and his mother Lilian. Newlyweds from England, the Blackstones know nothing: they do not understand the land they have come to, and they certainly do not understand each other.
Joseph, apparently 'rather an ordinary man', has left England of necessity, having done something mysterious and terrible; Harriet, on the other hand, is an adventurous sort, who always longed to go 'beyond the boundaries society had set for her' during her 12 years as a governess. While they are jointly occupied in scraping a living from the inhospitable soil of their farm, their marriage seems sturdy enough, despite a series of disasters, but when Joseph glimpses a way of literally scraping a rather easier living - when he finds gold dust, or 'the colour', in their creek - their shared dream begins to rupture.
Tremain has said that she was moved to write about the mid-19th-century gold rush in New Zealand by the desperate flimsiness of the prospectors' tools, which she saw in a museum there, and she is particularly good at describing optimism in the face of overwhelming odds. The novel is about hope, or the point at which hope becomes destructive or turns into madness. Joseph dreams of gold, which he believes will allow him to atone for his disgraceful secret; Harriet dreams, more reasonably you might think, of 'land and children': but neither dream looks likely to come true.
In pursuit of their dreams, and later of each other, they pit themselves against some of the island's most hostile terrain. These are the sequences in the novel that will stay with you. Buildings collapse without warning in the heat, or are entirely scoured away by drought and wind. Terrible snows and floods arrive suddenly, with disastrous consequences.
A passage around Cape Farewell in an old steamboat is evoked in painful detail: nausea, spray, cold, terror, the bruises caused by the rearing up of the ship's rail. Such is the care and pace of her writing that Tremain has at her disposal a range of special effects that would tax Hollywood technicians. To say it is an exciting read makes The Colour sound old-fashioned, but there are shocks on another level, too: a nasty anal rape, a botched abortion, and an incident of drug-fuelled sexual ecstasy which the Literary Review's bad sex panel may like to investigate.
Other characters made similarly vulnerable by hope cluster around the Blackstones - their apparently secure neighbours, Dorothy and Toby Orchard and their young son Edwin, and Edwin's nurse, Pare, whose Maori mysticism furnishes one of the weakest strands of the novel. Arriving halfway through is a Chinese market gardener, Pao Yi, who sells his produce to the desperate, bedraggled prospectors. Since Pao Yi is only character entirely reconciled to his situation, having few expectations beyond his neat, colourful patch of vegetables, it is inevitable that he too will find his life turned upside down by nature's random intervention.
It's an engrossing novel, an adventure story with a sensitive side; Robert Louis Stevenson with a fit of the vapours. Since Tremain's writing is celebrated for its richness, its sensuousness, it's a relief to report that the comparatively muted colours of The Colour are no obstacle to her readability. If anything, they allow it to shine even more brightly.
Opening Line: “The coldest winds came from the south, and the cob house had been built in the pathway of the winds.”
Closing Line: “When she came to the place where the cob house had stood, she saw that the tusset grass was long and green, and it had come clustering around the old range, as if to hide this embarrassing invention, so that the winds would no longer see it, no longer try to destroy it, only howl around it and pass on.”
Quotes: “She felt his hand on her brow, and the touch of this was the most beautiful thing that Harriet had ever experienced.”
Rating: Very Good.

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