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Merle

Merle

The Colour - Rose Tremain The Colour is a well-written, engaging work of historical fiction, set in 1860's New Zealand. It reminded me of Allende's Daughter of Fortune and Smiley's The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, which are set around the same time period (although in different parts of the world) and have some similar characters and situations, but without being so similar as to feel derivative. Like those books, it also has some plotting issues, but is good enough to be worth a read anyway.

Newlyweds Joseph and Harriet Blackstone arrive in New Zealand intending to start over; each married the other hoping for a new life, although they're barely acquainted. With Joseph's mother Lilian, they buy some land, build a house out of cob, and intend to start farming, but events don't go as planned. Then a gold rush comes along and changes everything.

The Colour is on the more literary end of historical fiction: while it tells an engaging story, the pacing is not especially quick and much time is spent on character development, which is well-done. Joseph is fairly useless, but Tremain does a good job of writing him in such a way that readers can sympathize somewhat (where, if we didn't have his viewpoint, he would likely come across as an antagonist). Harriet is more traditionally likeable, but complex. Lilian might at first seem like a stock obnoxious mother-in-law character, but soon becomes much more well-rounded.

The historical detail is worked into the story well, and there's a good sense of place with some evocative descriptions (although one key setting--the Hurunui gorge--is left almost entirely to the reader's imagination, as if it were intended to be more metaphorical than real). And the writing is good. There's something opaque about it, though: scenes that seem intended to have some great symbolic or metaphorical meaning that was not evident to me. Maybe the point was that life doesn't always make sense or turn out well--it's a melancholy book--but there's something rather distancing about Tremain's vision or her writing style that I didn't feel I entirely understood.

My other issue with the book is plot-related. Toward the end, a romance comes out of nowhere, as if the author suddenly realized the book had no love story and threw one in, but without bothering to integrate it into the rest of the story. And there are a couple of secondary characters who have their own minor plotlines, but don't contribute much, seemingly there more to add ethnic color than anything else.

Overall though, I did enjoy this book and would recommend it as a good work of historical fiction--if more melancholy and less willing to give up its secrets than the typical fare.