Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Dreaming of Home

The Colour by Rose Tremain. Farrar Straus Giroux. 379 pages. $25.00

Rose Tremain’s The Colour is a low-wattage period drama of marriage and ambition that doesn’t really turn up its flame until it’s almost over. A lot happens in it, with four stories going at various times, all involving people caught up in the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s, but Tremain’s prose style is so subdued it always seems to be lagging behind, patiently waiting for the material to cough up more inspiration than it at first seems to have. Almost by the skin of her teeth, she makes the trip worthwhile.

At the center of the story are the middle-aged newlyweds Joseph and Harriet Blackwood, who arrive in Christchurch, New Zealand, from England with Joseph’s recently-widowed mother Lillian. All three are completely out of their element. Joseph’s plan is to build a house and farm in a nearby village, although he knows nothing of building or farming; his long-term goals, like his sudden decision to marry Harriet, whom he barely knows, are acts of desperation. Harriet, at 34, married him for the same reason, and she soon realizes Joseph is everything she never wanted: he’s bullheaded, pushed around by his snippety mother – who constantly reminds him of how inferior he is to his father – doesn’t want children, and his habit of covering her face when they have sex creeps her out. What she doesn’t know is that Joseph is consumed by a guilty secret involving a young girl, and that both his marriage and this uncomfortable life in a hostile environment are hasty, ill-conceived attempts to resolve it. Joseph clearly has no future as a farmer; he slings together a house that is barely better than a shack, and forces his poor cow to wear a ridiculous “jacket” to keep warm because he can’t afford a shed. He’s also a borderline psychopath, and everything about him is marked by frustration, by trying to force things to work. His plans, as well as his anxiety about the future, are ratcheted up a notch when there appears to be gold on his property, a secret he keeps from the family. Although “the colour” comes to nothing, it inspires him to join others who have headed to the mountains to seek for gold-lined dreams.

While Joseph is panning and planning, Harriet seeks a reprieve from her gripy mother-in-law by spending time with the neighbors, the Orchards, taking a particular liking to their young son Edwin. Edwin confides in Harriet a strange secret of his own, which is that he communicates telepathically with Pare, a Maori nursemaid who was banished from the house when he was an infant. Pare’s love for Edwin and her refusal to stop visiting him, both mentally and in actuality, has made her an exile from her own village as well. As Pare wanders in the wilderness, she becomes ill, as does Edwin, her spiritual twin. When Lillian dies and Harriet rides out to tell Joseph, Edwin prevails upon her to find Pare; she also joins the hunt for gold.

Harriet’s search leads to a brief reunion with Joseph as well as a romantic encounter of her own with Pao Yi, a married Chinese expatriate who, like her, tends to stick out at a mining camp. Although the affair between the two has a sticky, somewhat girlish streak of feminism to it – who knew that cunnilingus was the key to a woman’s heart even way back then? – the book suddenly begins making some sort of structural sense. Harriet and Pao Yi, stuck in loveless marriages, find some kind of temporary home in each other, a home bound not to last, and it becomes clear that this elusive search for home has been driving the novel all along. Home becomes, like gold, a capricious dream that may or may not be within one’s grasp.

The Colour is at its most impressive as this perspective takes shape, particularly in the opposing images of Joseph and Harriet with which Tremain leaves us – however late in the game, it boosts this sleepy, logy, wanly amusing tale onto a plane more spiritual and almost artistic.

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