It seems a fairly common truth that the greater the expectation of a new book from an
admired author, the greater the disappointment if the novel doesn’t please, so maybe I
am being unduly harsh in my criticism of Rose Tremain’s new novel The Colour. But
harsh I shall be because Music and Silence, Tremain’s last book, was profoundly
beautiful and The Colour is not.
The book is set in New Zealand and even though many of you will suggest that is
sufficient reason to dislike it, as the Australian lack of interest in all things New Zealand
is legendary, I have read and enjoyed many books set in that beautiful countr y. (I
believe even Tolkien set The Lord of The Rings trilogy on the Middle Island.)
Joseph Blackstone, his wife Harriet and his widowed mother Lilian emigrate from
England in the mid 1800’s to star t a new life farming in New Zealand. Joseph is
escaping his past, Harriet is searching for a future and Lilian is simply bewildered at the
sudden and ridiculous death of her husband and her consequent removal to the other
side of the world.
Although Tremain’s prose is, as always, crisp and beautiful, Joseph is as unlikeable
character as you are ever likely to meet in any novel. The defects of his personality are
distasteful and the tor tured workings of his soul repellent. I earnestly wished him to be
pecked painfully to death by giant Moa birds early on in the book in a similar manner to
his benighted father. His wife Harriet, however does require some sympathy. She is
strong and hardworking and seems likely to make this new life of hers into something
worth having. Lilian is completely superfluous to the stor y and only serves to provoke a
kind of snivelling guilt in Joseph as he professes to want to prove himself worthy of her
without ever attempting to do so.
Tremain does allow us one shining light in her writing, in the form of the neighbouring
farmers Toby, Dorothy and Edwin Orchard. The characters of these three are so
exquisitely drawn that you feel you would be welcomed as an old friend if you arrived at
their door one day in your donkey cart as Harriet did. However, their story seems
entirely irrelevant to the travails of the Blackstones and the curious stor y of Edwin and
his Maori nurse seems as utterly bewildering to his parents as it is to the reader. This
section is neither enriching nor satisfying and is completely inconclusive.
It was a great relief to me when Joseph decided to leave Harriet and the farm to search
for gold and it was therefore a blow when I found that Harriet and the reader had to
follow him to the stinking mud of the goldfields in order to churn on through the turgid
story of their lives. After watching Joseph dig himself actually and metaphorically into
ever deeper and darker holes in the midden and mud, I was hopeful of being pecked to
death by Moas myself as a small diversion.
The one redeeming feature of this story, which in contrast to it’s title is an almost
unrelieved grey, is that in the end Harriet actually gets what she is looking for (although
she plans her future to include her father to whom she has been writing throughout the
story but who, due to some supposed absentmindedness on the part of the author,
seems not to actually exist). She leaves the story with a measure of freedom and hope.
I also leave the story with some hope that next time Rose Tremain will turn her
undoubtedly magnificent talents to a story that we actually would want to read.
ps. I do wonder if the person who achieved immortality by having their name used as a
character in the stor y after donating money to a charity actually had any choice in the
character they were given. I think I would have paid handsomely not to have my name
included in this book.