Click here for Stephanie Perry's review of The Colour
In her most remarkable novel, Rose Tremain contrasts an English couple against the drama of mid-nineteenth century New Zealand. Newlyweds Joseph and Harriet Blackstone emigrate from England in Joseph's bid to escape his moral conflicts. Harriet, unwilling to dedicate her life to spinsterhood and raising other people's children, agrees to marriage this virtual stranger, lured by the excitement of the impending journey. They bring along mother-in-law Lillian Blackstone, who clings to memories of the past and fears the future.
All are stunned by the harsh reality of their new home, and Joseph builds a temporary dwelling, the Cob House, where the inhabitants coexist, separated by thin walls of calico. Immediately engrossed with the chores necessary for survival, Joseph and Harriet grow used to their solitary days and their ability to communicate slips silently away. Harriet values her solitude, a new experience, gazing at the distant mountains with longing. For his part, John is emotionally unwilling to participate in his marriage or be a proper husband. When he unearths a minute amount of gold dust from their creek, he is bitten by gold fever and determines to follow the Gold Rush on the West Coast.
With meticulous research, Tremain reveals the face of this obsession, the excessive drive of the miners seized by an addiction that strips them of any semblance of humanity. They burrow into the earth like moles, blinded to the world around them. John Blackstone is one of these men, hamstrung by his own stubbornness. When Harriet comes to the gold fields, searching for John after his mother's death, they are confronted with the wasteland of their marriage. After an awkward meeting, Harriet leaves John's camp and climbs higher up the mountain, placing her own camp near the river, not far from the produce gardens of Chen Pao Yi, who grows vegetables that he sells to the miners. Harriet is astonished by the colorful garden Pao Yi has maintained in the wilderness, so like her own, its beauty a particular comfort.
When nature intervenes, the sudden brutality of its indifference changes the landscape of life on the gold fields. This challenging land would intimidate lesser folk, but Tremain's characters are clearly and irrevocably shaped by their individual choices. The struggling protagonists stand in stark relief against the knowledge of love and devastating loss. Most fascinating is Harriet Blackstone, who shines with a new radiance. The "colour", the gold, changes John, Harriet and Pao Yi intimately, this vast terrain marking each indelibly. This is a love story, between man and woman, between human nature and the awesome power of the physical world.