Author: Rose Tremain
Details: (c) Rose Tremain 2003; Pub 2003 QPD
Verdict: The colour is readable and atmospheric.
Reasons for reading it: I enjoyed Sacred country by the same author, though it's one of the handful of books I never got round to reviewing.
How it came into my hands: I did a bit of a raid on Brighton charity shops while I was in the city over the summer. Only on a small scale, because I didn't want to go buying more books than I could carry home. But this was one of them.
The colour could almost stand as an exemplar of How to Write a Quality Historical Novel. There's very little to criticize about it, but there's also not much that makes it really stand out. The characterization is well above average, and that in turn made it easy to engage with the story. There's a pleasingly, but not overly, complex plot, with a range of different characters who are all plausible. There's a well-executed love story, which is only one among many threads, as one would expect from a literary historical novel as opposed to a trashy historical romance. OK, the basic plot is that the characters overcome hardship to reach a slightly unlikely happy ending, but there's a lot of nuance within that structure, for example, the happy ending doesn't completely wipe out the emotional effects of the past hardship.
The setting, the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s is interesting and not something that has been done to death, and Tremain has clearly done her research carefully but resisted the temptation to be didactic about presenting it. As with Sacred Country, I think the greatest strength is the sense of place; the setting is really well conveyed, though the characters who live in it are not merely incidental.
Harriet has a slight tendency towards being too perfect, but I have to say I've seen far worse Mary Sue heroines. And she's clearly a product of her time, not a transplanted 21st century woman. One good thing is that the unsuitable husband is portrayed with some degree of sympathy, even though he is bad enough that Harriet's detachment from him seems plausible. Likewise you can see how awful the mother-in-law is to live with, but again, you get enough of her viewpoint to make her sympathetic in spite of that. I did have a feeling that Tremain was being a bit consciously PC in including a Maori character, a Chinese character, and a gay subplot, but it's better than having everyone in the entire large cast be white anglos. It irked me slightly that such a big deal is made of Pao Yi's "filial piety" in bringing a picture of his parents with him to Australia, whereas Joseph Blackstone's major motivation throughout the book is making his mother proud of him, but that isn't filial piety at all! And Pare doesn't completely escape the magical negro paradigm, though again, it could be a lot worse.
But those minor quibbles aside, The colour is a readable and well-written novel.