Thank you to Pat for moderating The Colour by Rose Tremain. An excited buzz was in the air as we gathered, eager to get back into book discussion, after our summer break.
The Colour had proved to be perfect holiday reading. From opening chapters you knew you were in safe hands with the promise of a page turning, well written, well researched book set around The Gold (The Colour) Rush in 19th century New Zealand.
The novel ‘s main protagonists, deeply flawed Joseph Blackstone, his wife Harriet and mother Lillian, emigrated from England, escaping various tragic pasts, for a new start in the alien hinterland near Christchurch. Joseph throws everything into building a cob house ignoring local advice on where to set its foundations. The first severe winter snow brings huge deprivations for the family though they battle on with the fortitude of true pioneers. OBGers doubted we were made of such stern stuff!
One morning, going down to the river, Joseph spots flecks of gold and quickly becomes consumed with making his fortune an easier way. He leaves the farm alone, sails north around the South Island to the gold fields on the West Coast. Later Harriet, after Lillian’s death, follows him, though they never meet again.
There is a sweeping cast of believable characters including generous neighbours Toby and Dorothy Orchard, successful sheep farmers who in contrast have tamed their environment, their ailing son Edwin with his Maori nurse Pare, Pao Yi, the gentle Chinese gardener supplying vegetables to the miners with whom Harriet develops a fulfilling relationship, and camp followers rent boy Will Sefton, and Mrs Dinsdale, the respectable landlady turned brothel owner. While there were mixed views on the degree of our emotional attachment to some of characters, the majority of members were absorbed in their different stories, particularly Harriet’s, praising Tremain’s poignant observations.
Pare was voted the least convincing. Presumably, Tremain had introduced Pare to add a layer of Maori spiritually to the grasping world of the immigrants. One member reminded us that Pare had no interest in gold searching instead for culturally significant Greenstone. This was an effective jolt for the group to question the meaning of intrinsic value.
There was unanimous agreement that the strength of the book was her vivid descriptions of the landscape, particularly the workings of the gold fields with its complicated contraptions to mine the seams hidden in the riverbed. We all got caught up in the gold fever debasing men and women into creatures with one aim to find gold or take advantage of those who had.
Jane Campion’s film The Piano was referenced………the mud, the clothes, the new settlers alienation from the landscape. Another member compared Tremain’s storytelling style to Thomas Hardy novels where unsympathetic leading men and fate, symbolised by the weather, are always strong themes ……The Mayor of Casterbridge sprung to mind.
Minor criticisms were the Mills and Boon description of the physical relationship that developed between Harriet and Pao Yi, the death of Lillian’s husband by an Ostrich seemed rather odd and tying up all the loose ends in closing chapters may have been a bit twee, but, hey, lots of us were pleased to know they were mostly going to be OK after everything.
Rose Tremain is a new author to many, but certainly one we will revisit when the mood calls for a strong story well told.