Bibliofemme Bookclub An Irish Bookclub

January 10, 2012

The Colour by Rose Tremain

Filed under: Bookclub Books,Historical Fiction — The Historian @ 3:07 pm
The Colour Book Cover The Colour
Rose Tremain
Historical Fiction
Random House

Meeting: Friday 8th October 2004

As I head off for the far-flung shores of New Zealand, I wanted my last Bibliofemme choice to reflect the coming changes in my own circumstances. An extended search for books by authors from that country was unfruitful but I eventually discovered Rose Tremain’s The Colour, a book not by a New Zealander but about New Zealand, specifically the 1860s gold rush in the South Island. I’m not nicknamed the Historian for no reason!

The main characters are Joseph and Harriet Blackstone, a couple who leave Norfolk in England for a new life in New Zealand. He is trying to escape a despicable event from his past – the details of which are clumsily inserted into proceedings, while Harriet is relieved to have avoided ending her life as a governess in other people’s homes. The ‘colour’ of the title refers to the gold dust that the nineteenth century goldminers obsessively searched for. When Joseph discovers some in a nearby riverbed, he too is consumed by this quest for gold. He abandons his wife, his disagreeable mother, his newly built cob house and just purchased land to seek the colour on the West Coast. Harriet, meanwhile, is looking for much more than a continuation of her arid life in England. Unlike the other settlers, she is anxious to build something completely new, away from the rigid rules of nineteenth century English society, and resents Joseph’s adherence to that protocol.

But neither Harriet, for all her strength in adversity, nor the weasly Joseph are entirely convincing. In fact, the most real and vivid characters in The Colour are the landscape and the weather of New Zealand. There’s a truly wonderful sense of place about Tremain’s descriptions of the Southern Alps and the harsh Christchurch winters and she also manages to depict the pure hardship and filth of the gold rush in tangible detail. Amidst the memorable descriptions of waterfalls, muddy mining camps and frontier towns, her characters never really manage to come alive. A series of descriptions of anal sex seemed gratuitous and the plot seemed to meander along without any clear knowledge of where it was to end up. A subplot involving a Maori nanny, Pare, and her young charge, Edward, adds a mystical, magic realist element to the book but, without development, is abruptly ended in a brutal manner.

Although I had issues with the plot, the characters and the pacing, I still enjoyed The Colour. For me, looking for information on a country that I am soon to visit, Tremain’s evocation of New Zealand is memorable and the historical detail fascinating. 3/5 The Historian

Score awarded by Bibliofemme: 2.8 out of 5

What the other femmes had to say
The DJ “Tremain adeptly captures the landscape and history of the New Zealand goldrushes but the setting is the only positive in this dour book, let down by one-dimensional characters, a poorly constructed plot and a pace slower than a snail’s marathon.” 2/5

The Techie “I enjoyed this book and found it a compelling read. Tremain exhibits real genius in some of her descriptions and this book evokes a sense of ‘place’ like no other. Unfortunately her characters let her down.” 3/5

The Writer “Extraordinarly vibrant descriptions of place and environment – I can still smell the mud, taste the fresh vegetables, feel the rush of the freezing water. But it’s a book populated by one-dimensional characters: Harriet and Joesph seemed like two halves of the same person to me and I was never particularly bothered about how they were going to end up in the end.” 3/5

The Gardener “Pure escapism, after reading this I really felt as if I had been transported to another world. With Tremain’s great talent with description, I found I was able to shrug off her weak characters and just enjoy being elsewhere. Pick it up to see and experience a piece of New Zealand’s gold rush, but not for an in-depth plot.” 3/5

The Artist “Though captivated by the setting evoked I felt this work to be strangely lacking in passion and depth.” 3/5

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