"The Colour" by Rose Tremain

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In Rose Tremain's "The Colour" we follow the lives of a man, his mother, and wife, who travel from Victorian England to New Zealand for the newly-discovered gold there. The story starts off slowly, with the rigors of 19th-century round-the-world travel and the cloud under which the trio leaves England. The cloud really hovers over Joseph, the main force behind the move. His wife Harriet's story is told in some detail, and we believe her motivation in marrying Joseph, but we do open with the wrenching change of escape and seeming exile.

Joseph proves to be a secretive, grasping type, and has little consideration for the two women in his life. Living conditions appal us and them, and the two ladies try to put a life together as Joseph goes off to the fields. At length, Harriet goes in search of her errant husband, and at this point, this story really takes flight. We come to a gritty, all-too-real depiction of the raw greed and cruelty reigning at a mining camp, where Harriet meets a Chinese trader. For me, this episode proves that this is Harriet's story. She and this Chinese man become close and, in a soaring, lovely, dreamy part of the book, Harriet learns about herself, the possibilities of life and intimacy, and the full strangeness of the world. This couple secludes itself from prying eyes, and becomes enshrouded in clouds in its lonely mountainside nest. This man has no need of gold; he went to the fields to serve as a merchant to the prospectors. But he's left that behind, and subsists in a separate way. Harriet provides comfort and companionship and theirs is a compelling, devoted relationship. Harriet finds not only the gold of this man's love, but also gold of the more prosaic type, the "colour" so desperately sought by the grasping masses on the lower slopes. In the small stream running through their camp, Harriet spots a plentiful series of true nuggets, which the man has no interest in. The gold comes to those who do not seek it, but seek to give themselves away. So Harriet's manifold gain forms the center of this beautiful story, and when her beloved Chinese partner hears that his wife back in China needs him to come back, he abruptly leaves Harriet, who is nonetheless thoroughly enriched.

Rose Tremain holds a high place in my estimation, one of the highest. This story of Harriet's rewarded quest represents a deeply inspiring and gratifying tale, with sumptuous and vivid natural descriptions of nature and a soaring exploration of one woman's growth. Do yourself the great service of picking it up.
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