Author: Rose Tremain, 2003.
Genre: Literary. Historical Fiction. mid-19th century.
Other Details: Paperback. 384 pages.
I have to admit that when I read the back cover of this novel after it was handed out by the librarian who facilitates our library reading group my heart sank a little. English settlers in New Zealand getting caught up in the gold rush just felt like something I was going to find a hard slog. Well I was wrong and realised very quickly that Rose Tremain is a superb story-teller.
The central story involves Joseph and Harriet Blackstone, who emigrate to New Zealand's South Island where they buy some land and plan to farm. Accompanying them to their new life is Joseph's mother, Lillian. Joseph has something terrible on his conscience and wishes to escape this past. Harriet had been a governess for twelve years and sees this marriage and move across the world as an opportunity to 'go beyond the boundaries society had set for her'. Despite hostile conditions they manage to just scrape out a living.
Then comes the day when Joseph spots a glint of gold dust in the creek on their land. He secretly begins to pan for gold, hiding the small amounts he finds from his wife and mother. When he hears news of a major gold strike in the Southern Alps, he is struck by gold fever and basically abandons Harriet and Lillian to follow his dream of riches. During this journey and in the gold fields he and others face terrible hardships. I won't say too much more about the plot though it does take some unexpected directions in terms of how characters respond to various challenges.
While Harriet and Joseph's story is the main focus, there is a sub-plot involving the Orchards, an English family living nearby who have prospered in this new land. The relationship between their young son, Edwin and Pare, the Maori woman who had been his nurse when he was an infant, introduces aspects of indigenous culture and a touch of magical realism. There is also a dream-like quality to other sections including some evocative opium fuelled experiences.
It was these mystical elements that some members of the reading group and critics cited as the weakest part of the novel and yet I felt that the aspects of Maori culture were important in terms of highlighting that the settlers were very much at odds with the land and that their desire for gold was not something that had meaning for the native peoples. Pare's presence also introduced issues of colonialism even if the scope of the book did not explore this in depth.
Tremain's rich narrative drew me into the story that I was full of admiration for her use of language, especially in terms of descriptions of landscape. In places it was quite uncomfortable reading as characters experienced various natural disasters, hunger and deprivations, especially in the gold fields. So parts of the book were very bleak indeed and yet overall there was a sense of optimism. My positive response to the novel inspired me to obtain her latest book, Trespass, from the library and place other works on my 'to be read' list.