Strong women may not usually capture the centre of attention in a wild west survival story - it's a men's world after all. Yet, Harriet deserves her spotlight! Set against the background of New Zealand's gold rush in the 1860s, Rose Tremain has crafted a memorable, vividly coloured historical drama, that revolves around immigrants Joseph Blackstone and his new wife, Harriet. New Zealand's spectacular landscapes and the country's havoc creating extreme weather vagaries, powerfully evoked throughout the novel, are merged as an integral part into the story and adding to its sense of drama.
The young couple, together with Joseph's mother, Lillian, embark on a farm life that none are prepared for. Tensions abound as the precariousness of their survival becomes evident, in particular during their first winter in the wilds around Christchurch. Three isolated and solitary people, each is preoccupied with attempting to overcome unresolved issues of their past life back in Norfolk, England. Joseph hides some shameful crime from his former life that comes back to haunt him with increasing intensity and is revealed to the reader in small portions. His secret is isolating him even more from his wife in particular. He becomes wary of his wife's positive attitude and growing self-confidence - "a woman as tall as he". When, by their creek, he discovers a few specks of gold, the 'colour', he is ecstatic and frantically searches for more. While no more gold is found and he manages to hide his find from his wife, his obsession can no longer be contained. He abandons the faltering farm and declares that joining the new wave of gold diggers on the other side of the country will be their financial rescue and salvation.
Harriet, while still expecting ongoing domestic contentment, has also been changing. Discovering Joseph's gold secret adds to her increasing disenchantment with her current life. Tremain sensitively captures Harriet's character and evolving personality. She conveys the new sense of confidence that sees Harriet blossom and explore new and sustaining friendships in the neighbourhood. Eventually, the young woman decides that seeking clarification in her relationship to Joseph will be essential for her own future. She embarks on a journey across the mountain to the South Island to find her husband among the gold diggers. The author's description of Harriet, the solitary woman on a horse, in the midst of a wild bunch of rough and reckless diggers is vivid and shows Tremain's deep empathy for the fate of the young woman.
Harriet had agreed to undertake another task during her solitary quest across the country: her young friend Edwin, gifted with unusual spiritual powers and in something resembling a mental dialogue with his former Maori nanny, Pare, needs Harriet to find her in the mountains. It is a life and death situation. While the sub-plot of Edwin and Pare moves the story possibly a bit too much into magical realism, the rest of the narrative is very strongly grounded in the realities of the time. Tremain's detailed description of the desolate living conditions that the diggers endure, their fixation to find "a homeward bounder" of gold that would relieve them, in one stroke, from all their worries and suffering, makes gloomy reading. Some characters, though, stand out, exquisitely captured by the author: young Will Sefton, a street urchin transported into the diggers' camps and especially Chen Pao Yi. Pao Yi came from China to seek his fortune, less as a gold digger than as a gardener and supplier of essentials to the different camps along the river. His life stands in stark contrast to that of the diggers. And then, one day, a sudden natural disaster threatens the survival of all those digging and living along the river and its vicinity... There is a moral undertone to the novel: in the end, those individuals who are least obsessed with the 'colour' have the author's attention and they have the best chance to gain the most in terms of humanity, dignity and happiness. [Friederike Knabe]