e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Archive for the tag “historical novel”

Rose Tremain’s ‘The Colour’

cover pictureI’ve just finished this book, and although I found it a page-turner and agree with other reviewers that it’s wonderfully well-written, I’m still not sure I actually like it.

The word that springs to my mind to describe it is ‘relentless’. Incident follows incident, interspersed with very detailed descriptions of the landscape of the action. At times I wanted a pause.

It is set in the New Zealand gold rush of the mid-19th century. The central characters, Joseph and Harriet Blackstone, are recent immigrants from England who find the new country harder to deal with than they expected.

First they try farming, and this is a struggle but may succeed. However, following the discovery of gold on their land, first Joseph then Harriet abandon farming and set off for the gold fields. Even when they achieve wealth, they haven’t arrived where they wanted or expected to be.

Their story is intertwined with two others: of a richer family whose child has a Maori nurse, and a Chinese gardener who intends to return home to Heron Lake in China when he is rich.

These multiple points of view give variety, and allow the author to explore different motivations. Showing how an individual’s actions stem from their life experiences and character is something Rose Tremain is very good at. We feel we understand where each of her people is coming from and why they often do apparently stupid things.

Above all this is a novel of landscape. The farming land, the effect of the gold rush on the wilderness, the inner landscapes of emotion and memory, the social landscapes of both England and New Zealand all interact with each other and with the almost malevolent weather.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes brilliant prose telling an exciting story, and also to anyone with an interest in the byways of history.

‘Year of Wonders: a novel of the plague’ by Geraldine Brooks

When a member of my book group recommended Year of Wonders, I thought it would be depressing and upsetting. It’s true that some of the scenes are harrowing – the descriptions of plague symptoms are very vivid – but the basic idea is uplifting.

When, in 1665, the plague arrived in their village, the people of Eyam in Derbyshire cut themselves off from the world in order to protect others. This added to their own suffering, but many of them were buoyed up by the knowledge they were doing right. Sadly, others couldn’t take the strain and there are several scenes of madness.

The book is all the more powerful because it’s based on a true event.

On Goodreads there are thousands of reviews. The couple that I read both complained at the ending. I’m still trying to make up my mind if I agree with them. I think that spending a few paragraphs describing the rest of the main character’s life is unbalanced and sort of unnecessary, but on the other hand it’s natural to want to know what became of her.

I shall certainly read more of Geraldine Brooks’ novels.

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