I chose Rose Tremain’s The Colour for the penultimate stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. Set in New Zealand, The Colour is the first of Tremain’s novels which I have read; before this, I had only encountered one of her short story collections. The Daily Telegraph calls her ‘one of the finest writers in English’, and this sentiment seems to be echoed by many reviewers.
The central characters in The Colour are married couple Joseph and Harriet Blackstone. They choose to migrate from Norfolk to New Zealand in 1864, along with Joseph’s mother, Lilian, ‘in search of new beginnings and prosperity’. Soon after they construct their house, Joseph finds small pieces of gold in the local creek, and is ‘seized by a rapturous obsession with the voluptuous riches awaiting him deep in the earth’. He then sets off alone, with the destination of New Zealand’s Southern Alps on his mind; there are a series of newly-discovered goldfields there, and he joins an enormous migration of men in order to try and make his fortune. The blurb declares the novel ‘by turns both moving and terrifying’, and describes it as being ‘about a quest for the impossible, an attempt to mine the complexities of love and explore the sacrifices to be made in the pursuit of happiness.’
Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning. She writes: ‘It was their first winter. The earth under their boots was grey. The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail. In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’ I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately. She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take. There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting. She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.
It feels as though the author is intimately acquainted with her characters, and their every wish and whim. When describing Joseph in the novel’s early stages, for instance, Tremain writes: ‘He turned away from his mother and looked admiringly at this new wife of his, kneeling by the reluctant fire. And he felt his heart suddenly fill to the very core with gratitude and affection… Joseph wanted to cross the room and put his arms around Harriet and gather her hair into a knot in his hand. He wanted to lay his head on her shoulder and tell her the one thing that he would never be able to admit to her – that she had saved his life.’ Harriet, too, feels fully formed, particularly given her slightly unusual and non-conformist character: ‘But she was a woman who longed for the unfamiliar and the strange… She wanted to see her own hand in everything. No matter if it took a long time. No matter if her skin was burned in the summer heat. No matter if she had to learn each new task like a child. She had been a governess for twelve years. Now, she had travelled an ocean and stood in a new place, but she wanted to go still further, into a wilderness.’
The Colour feels ultimately realistic from its beginning. It is filled with fraught discussions, and the darkness and loneliness which such a new life can bring with it. The cultural information is rich, and, particularly along with Tremain’s descriptions, paints a wonderful and tangible picture. I did find the ending slightly problematic, but it was still very enjoyable nevertheless, and I certainly struggled to put it down. Immersive and beautifully executed, The Colour is a believable and very human novel, which I highly recommend. I cannot wait to read more books by Tremain.