Newlyweds Joseph and Harriet Blackstone emigrate from England to New Zealand, along with Joseph's mother Lilian, in search of new beginnings and prosperity. But the harsh land near Christchurch where they settle threatens to destroy them almost before they begin. When Joseph finds gold in a creek bed, he hides the discovery from both his wife and mother, and becomes obsessed with the riches awaiting him deep in the earth. Abandoning his farm and family, he sets off alone for the new goldfields over the Southern Alps, a moral wilderness where many others, under the seductive dreams of the "colour," rush to their destinies and doom.
The familiar feeling of being snubbed -- a feeling she'd thought belonged only to England, where the disdain of the upper classes infected every encounter -- made Lilian want to weep, or, worse, give Dorothy Orchard a vicious swipe across her badly coiffed head. Lilian was particularly vexed by the knowledge that she never understood exactly how people like Dorothy Orchard achieved their instantaneous mastery over others outside their class. It happened before you noticed it, like a perfectly executed card trick. (p. 78)
Joseph is arrogant and stubborn, refusing to listen to advice from the locals on where to build his house, and what materials to use. Joseph and Harriet have an odd relationship. Joseph has a secret in his past, and married for all the wrong reasons. It's not clear what they see in one another, and it doesn't take long for Harriet to realize she will never truly love Joseph:
For day by day, she kept secret from him her own lovelessness. It piled up in her. At times, it was not merely lack of love that she felt; it was hatred of the blackest kind. And though she struggled to conceal it from him, perhaps she succeeded no better than he did with his blatant heaps of earth? In the nights, she often awoke at first light to see him staring at her, his eye close to hers, his fists clenched around the sheets. Did he know that she did not love him? Did he understand all too clearly that she loved the wilderness he had brought her to, but not him? (p. 95)
Yet both Harriet and Lilian are committed to making their farm a success, even after Joseph finds gold in a nearby creek and decides to join the hundreds of other men seeking their fortunes in New Zealand's gold rush. Circumstances eventually force Harriet to go off on her own, in search of Joseph.
The story is told from alternating points of view with chapters narrated by Harriet, Joseph, and a couple of other characters who weave nicely into the storyline. Joseph turns out to be an arrogant and hapless loner, unable to relate to women and desperate to please his mother by accumulating wealth. Harriet is strong and independent, undaunted by Joseph's failings and refusing to bow to societal expectations of women. It is only through Harriet's intelligence that the couple have any chance of finding gold and making something of their lives together.
But that's only part of this story; Rose Tremain has more to say than "just" historical drama laced with love. She also shows how the quest for gold took its toll on the land and destroyed both individuals and communities. Those who are untouched by greed and continued leading simple lives were by far the happiest and, one could argue, the most successful.
Lilian, Joseph and Harriet Blackstone arrive by boat from England to Christchurch, New Zealand. Lilian Blackstone, Joseph's mother, is a widow ruined by her husband's gambling and has little choice but to follow her son. Joseph, as we gradually discover , is escaping the consequences of a sordid crime he committed in England. Oblivious to Joseph's past, Harriet is a 34 year old former governess, seeking her own home and hearth, who has hastily married Joseph.
Joseph initially starts with good intentions, as he says to Harriet:"We will not cling to familiar ways. We will imagine ourselves reborn over there. On the acres I am buying, everything will begin afresh." p15. However,Joseph's intentions quickly go awry.
He builds a " house" with sub- par materials, using calico fabric for the the interior walls. The house is far from civilization and any neighbours.Against the advice of others in the area, Joseph builds " Cob House" high on the hills, where winds and weather batter it.
Harriet, a strong, resourceful, admirable woman , bears up well and adapts to her new surroundings, planting a garden, procuring a few hens, a donkey and a cow. She also makes a great effort to meet and get to know her closest neighbours, a small family at the well built Orchard House. Meantime, mother and mother - in law Lilian despairs of the ill built house , the lack of culture and finds herself longing to return to England.
Joseph built the house by a creek for a water supply. He initially plans to create a pond at the creek, but in digging there, he finds a bit of "colour", that is a bit of gold dust. From then on Joseph is a man obsessed, spending months digging a the creek, neglecting all else and hiding his true reason for digging at the creek from both his wife and mother. Harriet and Joseph grow further apart, and in time Joseph's leaves Cob House, the farm and his wife and mother for goldfields over the Southern Alps. Joseph's lack of moral scruples worsen in the gold fields, and he is avoided by the men there. Joseph is a man driven by desire and greed.
The story touches on Maori culture, the Chinese who also immigrated to New Zealand, but not in a large way. There is some magical realism with regards to both the Maori Culture, and the Chinese man, Pao Yi. It was interesting, but not altogether believable to me.
A dark and interesting piece of historical fiction, and one which focuses on both the physical and moral wilderness that the Blackstone family encounter in the New Zealand frontier . The focus is on the moral wilderness, and that is what made the novel most interesting and darkly intriguing.
In search of a new life, Joseph Blackstone, along with his bride, Harriet, and his widowed mother, Lilian, sails from England to New Zealand in 1864. But Blackstone is a hardheaded, callous man, and his homestead is doomed to failure. When he discovers strains of gold, “the colour,” in the creek passing through his property, he abandons both farm and family in pursuit of riches. The gold-fields, he will shortly learn, are a moral cesspool. Harriet, now alone in a strange land, must find her own way. Fearlessly (almost), she sets out on her own adventure.
In addition to the parallel stories of the Blackstones, Tremain skillfully integrates both Chinese and Maori elements into The Colour using secondary characters: Maori woman, Pare, and Chinese gardener, Pao Yi. The relationships between characters, primary and secondary, are fascinating: like gold, they are deceitful and duplicitous.
Tremain’ writing is fabulous, and I look forward to more of her work. Highly recommended.
This is a book of visions and of vision, a book that seriously considers the quest beloved by English teachers as a theme in literature. Now that I have finished it, I believe that four stars may be too few, but while I was reading, I was less satisfied than I had been in her other books. I'll let the four stars stand, but say that this one is well worth the time.
There is more going on her than you find in a typical historical novel, which is why it was nominated for the Orange prize and also included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I really enjoyed Tremain’s writing style, and will definitely look for more of her novels. I’ve never read anything about the colonial period in New Zealand, so I enjoyed exploring a new time and place. I also liked how she wove together threads about the Maoris and both English and Chinese immigrants.
Recommended for: readers who like their historical fiction on the more literary side, readers who are interested in the time period or NZ setting.
Joseph and Harriet Blackstone, along with Joseph’s mother, Lilian, settled in their cob house in rural New Zealand, and while dredging the creek, Joseph discovered gold dust. New Zealand was at the throes of a gold rush – much like in California – and Joseph immediately was struck with gold fever. He hid his discovery from his wife and mother, until the fever (literally) overtook him, and he voyaged out to strike it rich. Meanwhile, Harriet and Lilian were left to make do on an undeveloped farm in meager shelter.
Joseph was an interesting character. Hard-working but unconfident, he was hell bent to redeem himself from his “mistake” in England, especially in the eyes of his mother. Redemption for Joseph was in the form of money and success, which is why he was so determined to find more gold. Harriet was another interesting character. Strong, smart and practical, she longed for the mountainous life in New Zealand, but became steadily uneasy with the life Joseph wanted for them. For her, a simple but successful farm filled with warmth and love was more important than wealth.
I have never read a book set in New Zealand, and I was fascinated with the inclusions of the native culture, wildlife and customs that Tremain sprinkled in this book. The rigors of farm life and gold camps were blatant and telling, with tragedy poking its head around each corner. You wished the best for each character, even when he didn’t know what was the best thing for him (or her).
This was my first Rose Tremain novel but not my last. Her storytelling, vivid language and fascinating characters left me begging for more. I highly recommend The Colour to readers who enjoy great historical fiction or want to learn more about the settlement of the British in New Zealand.
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.
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.
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.
Tremain is wonderful at evoking the vast emptiness of an embryonic New Zealand, still in the first throes of its colonial settlement. One senses that things are not yet permanent, that if things were to go badly wrong, for instance from a few years of famine or another such catastrophe, the colonial population could and would just "up sticks" and leave for somewhere more promising. This is an epic landscape but one in and on which the white settlers are not yet fully a part.
Her evokation of the chaos and desperate hope engendered by the gold rush (that headlong lunge for wealth which was, Harriet's accidental participation notwithstanding, entirely a male domain) with all its squalor, filth and degradation, is also vivid and memorable.
There is, at first glance at any rate, a fundamental flaw in the plot in that Joseph's reason for fleeing to New Zealand (that he is being blackmailed by a former accomplice over something which went badly wrong) doesn't add up. The reality is that if Joseph stood his ground and refused to be blackmailed there is nothing that his blackmailer could do to denounce Joseph without revealing his own much more central part in the deed which is a secret between them. In denouncing Joseph, the blackmailer would in effect put his own head in a noose.
However Joseph is not a thinking or rational man. He is an impulsive man, easily driven to bitterness and envy towards those who seem to be doing better than he is. He is riddled by a need to finally do something, anything, to gain the approval and respect of his mother who had been bitterly disappointed in her late husband but who at the same time idolised him - no doubt as a good wife was required to do regardless of the realities of her marriage. Perhaps his tragedy (though what also might have been his salvation) is that he married a woman very unlike his bitter mother.
Tremain has created a huge cast of characters, or maybe a cast of huge characters, who are vivid on the page and memorable afterwards. Her writing is a wonderful discovery and I'm delighted to already have another of her novels waiting on the in-pile.
Within the first 40 pages of this tale of an English transplant and his new wife making a new life for themselves on the south island of New Zealand in the 1860s, the two have developed a mutual disaffection for each other, and you just know it's all downhill from here. Scenes of inordinate violence punctuate the relative calm throughout the text and, with little exception, the story eventually reveals itself to be populated by some of the most despicable characters in recent fiction, none of whom feel really worth our sympathies.
Ultimately, the whole story's an unsurprising downer, but it's still a surprisingly absorbing read despite the impenetrable bleakness.
Whether she’s describing the harsh wilderness that awaits the newly-wed English couple, Harriet and Joseph Blackstone, and Joseph’s mother Lilian, on their arrival; the dangerous man-made wilderness of a mining camp, or the toll both take on the human psyche, stripping away all inessentials and reducing individuals to their most basic nature, Tremain’s writing doesn’t disappoint.
With subtle twists and turns, the characters that inhabit this story must face deep truths about themselves. Those, like Joseph, who at first appear strong and reliable, disintegrate under the raw influence of the colour (gold) and their own secrets (Joseph’s relationships with both Rebecca and Will are excruciatingly revealing.) Others, like Harriet, discover unexpected inner fortitude, while Chen Pao Yi, the Chinese vegetable peddler, reveals a quiet strength and sensitivity that is Harriet’s salvation.
Tremain’s skill comes to the fore in her characterisations: although the cast of secondary characters is at times overwhelming, each character is drawn with such exquisite talent that their world is captivating.
Without any overt moralising, THE COLOUR ends with a clear message: those who face life with a sense of entitlement (whether based on their gender, race, social status or sense of victimhood) will find life futile and meaningless, while those who face life’s challenges with hope, courage and kindness will prosper both spiritually and materially.
Tremain has written a novel that is both profound and entertaining. A remarkable achievement.
Joseph Blackstone takes his new wife and his mother to New Zealand to start a new life. He is a selfish, self centred man who refuses to listen to other peoples advice, he married his wife for all the wrong reasons. She is strong and determined and is sure she will make a success of their new life. Joseph's mother just misses England and her late husband too much to be of very much use.
Harriet has the heart of an adventurer whereas her husband is just running from a dark secret and wracked with so much guilt, of what he has done, that he is incapable of making a success of anything. He doesn't really love his wife as he should, he's secretive and devoid of all feeling towards anyone but himself, he desperately wants to gain his mothers approval though, but doesn't know how.
When he finds gold on his land he hides the secret to himself and becomes obssessed with striking it rich, he abandons Harriet and his mother to go to the gold fields, which is ultimately his undoing.
The Story is told through each of these characters points of view. It is very hard to find any redeeming feature in Joseph and to start with his mother too, but you do feel sympathetic towards her as time goes on. Harriet is the one I empathised with, her determination to work hard and make a life for herself once she realises what Joseph is really like.
This is a great book, very well worth reading.
Why, then, did it feel so slow?
It can’t be denied that this author has a way with words. She created the atmosphere of time and place beautifully and with great attention to detail. The aims, thoughts and feelings of her characters were rendered so as to be perfectly understood. There was always something going on, and yet...I was never on the edge of my seat. That’s the reason for my low-ish star rating, not because it’s a bad book.
Longish, intense, with sensual descriptions both harsh and luxurious. Characters weren't terribly likeable except for Harriet. Like The Lifeboat, this book features women who are strong by nature or by necessity. The gritty realities of 19th century New Zealand gold rush are intimately conveyed. I liked it but kept losing the thread of the story.
7.5 out of 10 For fans of domestic, historical and pioneer fiction.
New Zealand's geography and climate seem to drive the plot of the novel. That was a good thing for me, since I chose it for the New Zealand setting. I didn't find any of the human characters particularly likeable. Joseph is ruled by his passions, particularly fear, greed, and lust. Harriet might seem like a saint in comparison, but she isn't. She is more coldly calculating. Although she usually has the self-discipline to do the right thing, it's clear that she is capable of great wrong but has the will to avoid courses of action that are not in her best interest in the long run. Neither Joseph nor Harriet seem to wrestle with moral questions. While the New Zealand history was fascinating, by the time I reached the end of the book I'd had more of Joseph and Harriet than I could comfortably stand.