The Colour by Rose Tremain is one of those books that you pick up and then have difficulty putting down. And then all of a sudden you turn the last page and you wonder what on earth you are going to read next. You’ve been completely engrossed in the story of Harriet, a governess in the 1860s in England, who marries Joseph, an unlikeable man who has a dark secret, and goes with him and his mother Lilian to New Zealand. To start a new and, in her expectations and hopes, a more exciting life. And of course, it all pans out so differently, real life and the harshness of settling down in an unforgiving landscape and climate, gets in the way. And what a life.
Joseph builds a ‘Cob House’, a house of mud, but in the wrong place and with the crumbling of the house in the unforgiving winds, heat and cold, there comes the realisation that this marriage and their precarious existence together will crumble with it. Joseph cannot forget what he has done and both Harriet and he realise they don’t love each other. Then Joseph takes off to dig for the Colour and gets caught up in the gold rush with everything that entails. Harriet and his mother Lilian stay behind to look after their ‘farm’, but not before Harriet has ensured Joseph buys her a horse and leaves a gun for her.
Rose Tremain has meticulously researched the life of gold diggers, the rush in New Zealand, and intertwined the beliefs and culture of a Chinaman looking for a different kind of fortune in New Zealand, and that of the Maori, the spiritualism and the superstitions, all this as part of the setting, the cruel and vast landscape, the moral wilderness, that in the end overwhelm. The book builds up to the dramatic ending which is almost inevitable; and then a certain calm and acceptance re-establishes itself when Harriet stays behind in New Zealand to make a life for herself and her unborn son (not Joseph’s), and Joseph ends up back in Norfolk where he started out from.
I have enjoyed reading this book, not least because it is so well written and is so thoroughly researched, but also because of the believable characters. Joseph is an unlikeable man and that does not change throughout the book, even if Tremain shows glimpses of a slightly better side every so often, she realises that he is what he is and true to his nature he will go on deceiving himself in a kind of self-pitying belief that he has been hard done by. He is incapable of overcoming his own character and so he fails.
So the search for the Colour, is not only about the search for gold, it is also about the search for happiness, for something that always seems to lie beyond, unless you are also willing to give in return and make sacrifices.
As the cover says: … surprising, invigorating and a satisfying read – I totally agree.
What am I going to read next? I look around this hotel room (yet again) and feel little inspired. I think I shall sleep it off, back on the train tomorrow and hopefully back home tomorrownight where I can cast a glance over my tbr pile and make up my mind. Meanwhile, I’ve got a collection of short stories for on the road, as well as a number of reports that need working on… And of course, there is the editing of the play… and… See, there is not enough time in any one day.