The Colour by Rose Tremain
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2003 400 pp. 25.00
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
The Colour is an entrancing historical fiction on what may seem to be an unpromising subject: the 19th century New Zealand gold rush. In Tremain’s deft hands, however, the narrative, moving from the east coast of the South Island to the west, unlike the arduous trek of the impoverished but ever-hopeful gold miners, moves with confidence and grace.
New Zealand, named by its indigenous Maori residents “the Land of the Long White Cloud,” became a refuge of sorts for Joseph Blackstone, his new wife, Harriet, and his sixty-three-year-old mother, Lillian. Like most who left one island to travel halfway around the world to another, each of the Blackstones sought to escape something: Harriet, the drudgery of 12 years as a governess; Lillian, the seemingly unshakeable grief following the death of her husband; and Joseph, a secret and psychologically devastating crime he committed in England and has managed to conceal from his family.
Landing on the South Island at Christchurch on the east coast in the 1860s, the Blackstones travel inland to the northeast, establishing a precarious grasp on land near the Okuku River. Disregarding the advice of the locals, Joseph builds his house in an unpropitious spot, leaving the house and family at the mercy of the fierce South Island weather.
Their nearest neighbors, the Orchards—Toby, Dorothy, and young son, Edwin—provoke envy, with a house that wouldn’t look out of place in the English countryside. All three Blackstones will have occasion to avail themselves of the kindnesses of the Orchards as they suffer misfortunes that threaten their very existence.
Salvation awaits from the threatening climate and daily drudgery: the “colour,” as the locals call gold. Although the first wild rush in Otago to the south has passed, there is promise on the west coast, near Hokitika, of instant riches, universal respect, and, in Joseph’s case, the chance to redeem himself for his earlier crime. Joseph leaves his wife and mother on an arduous boat trip through the Cook Straight to the goldfields outside Hokitika. Following his departure, tragedy strikes the women, and Harriet must make her way, alone, to find her husband amid the mad scramble of a gold rush.
The Colour is storytelling in the grand style, in which geography and random circumstance play havoc with characters’ lives, dashing their long-held plans in an instant, testing their character to the utmost. For the reader, the direction of the narrative remains as pleasurably unpredictable as the painful assaults on the characters’ fortunes.
In addition to the British, we are introduced to Edwin Orchard’s nanny, the Maori woman, Pare, whose spirit-filled animism incites Edwin’s imagination, and provides a satisfying counterpoint to the wild and selfish imaginings of the immigrants. Pao Yi Chen, a survivor of the Otago rush and merchant during the Hokitika madness, supplies a contrasting immigrant perspective, and a romantic story both surprising and believable.
Harriet, a woman “who longed for the unfamiliar and the strange,” arrived in New Zealand with visions of “flightless birds and glaciers shining in the sun.” She hoped that before her life, like that of her mother-in-law, moved towards its own “uncertain ending, she would have seen or known at least one extraordinary and unforgettable thing.” Like the reader, she is granted her wish in ways she could not have imagined.
Ms. Tremain, author of Restoration (shortlisted for the Booker prize and made into an American film), has woven a hypnotic, compelling tale set in one of the most beautiful countries on earth. She shows, however, that land, no matter how beautiful, is as indifferent to human aspiration and suffering as a glinting vein of golden metal amid the gray rock.