by Rose Tremain
A new life begins for Joseph and Harriet Blackstone, newlyweds from Norfolk. Together with Joseph's widowed mother Lilian they journey to the unknown to a new life on New Zealand's South Island. This is the mid nineteenth century, an age of migration and exploration, hope and confidence in new worlds and the fortunes they might bring. However, the harsh, bleak and unexplored terrain makes for a startling and uncomfortable beginning to the novel, this is not the lush comfortable world of Tremain's previous writing as in Music and Silence. They buy an isolated little farm, build a small dirt house and attempt to farm the land. Curiously dwarfed by the immense landscape, their life becomes increasingly claustrophobic, despite their large ambition. However, their foundations, in all senses are not sound and we are made to feel, most acutely, their disappointments and failures. Tremain's skill at controlling the pace is masterful - the reader is drawn agonizingly through the infrequent triumphs and more frequent disasters. We brace ourselves for the troubles ahead, not knowing what form they may take, and more so than any other book I have read, there is a pervasive and constant sense of impending doom. Harriet reveals herself to be adventurous, resourceful and hardy, Lilian is crippled with grief at the loss of her husband and it is Joseph who emerges as the most intriguing, dark and deeply flawed character. Here Tremain has drawn a truly horrible man, almost without redeeming features or humanity. Joseph is driven by personal impulses and lacks any empathy for others. Understandably Harriet finds she cannot love him. The marriage, which looked so promising in England, founders miserably in the new land. Joseph is unable to return Harriet's love and seems set upon his own private path, a solitary world where he has to prove something to himself. We become aware that the couple have left behind very different lives- Harriet's was dull and limited as a governess and Joseph has a shameful and disgraceful past, which Tremain gradually reveals to us in small, appalling glimpses.
Like so many settlers their dreams cannot be made real, the conditions are not right for prosperity and happiness and their farm fails. All that seems secure and settled can be blown away in an instant, this is masterfully symbolised by the seemingly secure and prosperous Orchard family, who Harriet greatly admires, and who are gradually eaten away by personal tragedy. The backdrop to the drama is relentlessly harsh. The weather is capricious, the land virgin territory and it is a sort of Looking Glass world where nothing is as it seems. Tremain describes the intense alienation and constant, grinding bleakness of the settler's toil on the farm with just enough detail to be convincing.
Then Joseph finds small particles of gold, known as 'the colour' in the stream. Unable to share his dream of wealth with Harriet, he labours in secret, concealing his findings. Consumed with a mania for gold, a sort of gold fever, he leaves the farm, abandoning his wife and mother to live on their wits and follows the gold rush to the other end of the island, seemingly to the ends of the earth.
Tremain makes great descriptions of the pitiful lives of the gold prospectors, fuelled with an almost pathetic lust for wealth. Their tools are insubstantial and their existence is grindingly harsh and brutal. They destroy the land, polluting and poisoning every thing they touch. Here Tremain creates some dreadful characters - Joseph fits right in among them, even beating them in terms of degradation and ferocity. In a wonderful descriptive passage Harriet sets out to join him. Firstly she attempts to cross the legendary and formidable mountain range, but cannot continue along a precipitous mountain pass, over the abyss - here the symbolism is powerful and affecting. Harriet then takes the long sea voyage. The world she now enters is a dark and terrible one, a vision of hell and as she summons all her strength of character to guide her, it becomes apparent that Joseph does not have the same inner resources and gradually the weight of his criminal past becomes too great a burden.
The Colour is truly a cocktail of ingredients that make it a five star read: powerful characters, magnificent landscapes, incredible description and a successful plot. Add in consistently masterful writing and the authority to take you on a journey to a bizarre land, seen through the eyes of Joseph and Harriet. Lastly, stir in human weakness and fragility of desire and the result is a powerful and real fable, a wonderful book, and quite the best thing I have read in years.
Read our interview with Rose Tremain.