In 1864, a newly married couple - Joseph and Harriet Blackstone - travel with Joseph’s mother Lilian from England to New Zealand to begin their lives together. For Harriet, it is the beginning of a future, a dream about her own home in the beautiful wilderness of New Zealand, a chance to have a garden and animals and to create something out of her life. For Lilian, the move represents failure and loneliness where she must give up her comfortable existence in England, be forced to piece back together the shattered remains of her china, and live on dirt floors in a cob house which leaks. For Joseph, the move to New Zealand is an escape from his past - a past he has buried and hidden from everyone - and a chance to heal his guilt and make his mother (finally) be proud of him.
Joseph Blackstone longed to do something that would please his mother. Something definitive. Something which would undo all that he’d done wrongly or inadequately in the past. He thought that if he could achieve this, then he would rest. -From The Colour, page 55-
The inhospitable and breathtaking land of New Zealand seems pitted against these people almost from the very first when Joseph mistakenly builds his home on an exposed hill instead of the protected flats. Then one day Joseph discovers gold dust in the creek near his home and keeps it a secret from both Harriet and Lilian. It becomes an obsession which promises his redemption and one which will finally drive him to the other side of the Southern Alps where a Gold Rush is underway.
Rose Tremain writes extraordinary prose which thrusts her reader into the midst of a stark and unforgiving environment. She develops her characters flawlessly - uncovering Joseph’s motivations, desires and finally his devastating secret as he struggles to find gold among desperate men. Joseph’s loss of love and morality is heartbreaking.
He felt that contentment was present in every other creature and every other thing - in the waterbirds which drank from the river, in the rats which scurried around his claim, looking for food, and in the songs the Glaswegian miners sang in the evenings. He alone lacked it. -From The Colour, page 223-
Harriet Blackstone is a raw character who grows before the reader’s eyes from an uncertain individual to a woman of courage and fortitude. In Tremain’s hands, Harriet is fully realized.
Better that we never know (she wrote to her father) what lies beyond the next hill. For the answer might come back “nothing.” And I confess that, having travelled across the world, I do not feel I would be content with that “nothing.” My habit of looking at the mountains has not gone away. They are so fine. I wish that I could paint a picture of them for you. And they Contain a mystery: that is what I feel. And I ask myself: Is the mystery they contain the mystery of my life? -From The Colour, page 168-
Lilian, too, grows from a difficult woman into one the reader comes to respect. Faced with the loss of everything she knows, she eventually puts aside the broken pieces of her life and strives to make something of what she has been given.
Thematically The Colour revolves around the power of nature, love and desire, materialism vs. inner contentment, and the connection between cultures. Tremain introduces a Chinese man who has left his family in China to join the Rush - not as a seeker of gold, but as a gardener providing sustenance for the miners. There is also Pare - a Maori woman who develops a mystical relationship with a small boy whom she once cared for. Despite the wide scope of theme and character in this novel, it never feels scattered. Tremain connects all the threads for her readers, giving them a book which is illuminating and satisfying. Tremain is a gifted storyteller, and in The Colour she combines all her talents and creates a novel which resonates with the reader.