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Rose Tremain's The Colour: less than the sum of its - many - parts

I’ve just finished reading a novel which I didn’t much enjoy, but which I forced myself to finish because I wanted to leave a review of it on GoodReads. I haven’t posted here for while, so just to keep the pot simmering, here it is. OK, that might be cheating but . . .

Whether you intend to read Rose Tremain’s 2003 novel The Colour and have come here searching the views of others, or whether you have, like me, logged on to submit your own rating and review, you will be struck that far more readers who have finished reading the novel — I shall be unkind and describe that as ‘ploughed their way through the novel’ — thought it very good and thoroughly enjoyed it.

It was also a hit with many of the critics: the blurb on the back of my paperback version quotes Britain’s Daily Telegraph as describing Ms Tremain as ‘one of the finest writers in English’, and the Britain’s Independent gushes ‘a fabulous work, bravely imaginative, deeply moving, surprising, invigorating and satisfying’.

The New York Times is a little more sober and warns that the novel can be, and often is, a little ‘windy’. I know what the paper’s critic means and intend to be less kind. And I have to say that I was not moved, surprised, invigorated or satisfied by The Colour. Sadly not a bit.

Yet I cannot deny that the overall majority of those who rated it were impressed — 26pc of the almost 5,000 awarded this novel five stars and 41pc gave it four stars. Only 23pc gave it, like me, three stars. So I must be candid: this might well be your kind of thing and you might well enjoy it, but it certainly wasn’t mine.

In my view The Colour is often horribly overwritten: Tremain cannot resist a simile or two or even 2,000, which all too often are forced, stick out like a sore thumb and illuminate nothing. She is also quite addicted to longwinded, inappropriate and often contradictory metaphors which serve no purpose except, I suspect, because Ms Tremain wants to give her work a literary flavour.

They don’t — all they give this work is a faux-literary flavour (faux as in ‘fake’), though I wouldn’t doubt that some readers — those who made this a five-star read — will often often have paused and reflected ‘God, she can write!’

Ms Tremain is obviously very much at home with words but there is more to writing than that, and her flood of metaphors jar and confuse and are usually entirely superfluous. Her descriptions sometimes just don’t ring
true, can be confusing and convey — for this reader at least — far less than they might have done or should do.

A few years ago I came upon a similar word to the now quite well-known term ’journalese’, which well describes the style of this kind of writing — ‘novelese’. You might know what I am talking about. To my mind The Colour is ‘novelese’.

I forced myself to finish the novel because I intended writing this review and thought it only fair to Ms Tremain to do so. But it was no pleasure — The Colour is 363 pages long and remorseless.

Ironically, it might well have successfully been boiled down to a quarter its size, and far more tautly written, concentrated to make whatever Ms Tremain hoped to convey more telling, it could have been a greater success.

What, though, she hoped to convey is not apparent. I often felt, in fact, that there might be material for four, five or six quite good and quite distinct short stories. But yoked together as the different themes and characters’ back stories were, it is too amorphous and at times turgid.

Somehow it didn’t hang together: the separate strands of the novel remained stubbornly separate and did not gel as I think Ms Tremain intended them to gel. Certainly there was ‘story’ enough, but the strands and their stories might well have made up separate books with no loss to each other.

The quasi-mystical account of an outcast middle-aged Maori women — I think — looking for some kind of redemption had essentially very little to do with the account of the English immigrant who becomes obsessed with finding gold (it all takes place in New Zealand’s mid-19th century gold rush).

This man, escaping in shame from the death of a young girl in a botched abortion, is married to a woman in her mid-30s who is also escaping, in her case from sterile future as a governess. The marriage, on both sides was one of convenience, but — crucially — the reader (well, this reader) fails to become engaged.

The former governess’ musings on freedom and all the rest read more like the yearnings of an adolescent girl confided to her diary than anything we might reasonably be expected to take seriously. Then there’s fourth central character, a Chinese market gardener who also stumbles into a fair amount of quasi-mysticism which had me more than baffled once or twice.

Those  yearnings of an adolescent girl highlight one aspect of Ms Tremain’s writing which I found particularly irritating. From the first page to the last Ms Tremain, whose presence as ‘the author’ is apparent throughout, gives us the thoughts and ‘insights’ of pretty much every character at every turn, and all — even a preternaturally articulate eight-year-old boy and the outcast middle-aged Maori women — express themselves as they might were they (much like Ms Tremain) writing a novel. It is incessant, interminable and wearying, especially when such insights come loaded with all those bloody similes.

Pretty much everything the characters see, hear, feel or ‘understand’ — they are much given to ‘understanding’ and getting insight into their lives, their pasts and their futures — has some kind of significance, and they examine and reflect their thoughts and feelings at pretty much every turn. It’s more like eavesdropping on a university creative writing class than being in the windy wilds and open country of New Zealand’s South Island.

Despite that, all the characters, with the possible exception the Englishman’s widowed mother (who emigrated with her son and his wife) and a 15-year-old male prostitute, remain distinctly two-dimensional. We don’t — well, at least I didn’t — care much about any of them and what fate might have in store for them at all.

This might, though, be your thing: after all 67pc of those who rated it gave it four stars or more. You might well enjoy a spuriously literary immersion in a sea of feelings, thoughts, insights. Yes, there is ‘action’ of kind and, yes, ‘things happen’ — quite a bit, in fact — but it is all so remorselessly swamped and our involvement struggles to survive. It really wasn’t my bag at all.

At first I was going to give The Colour just two stars, but I felt that was possibly unfair. It is not ‘bad’ at all. It’s just it doesn’t achieve what I suspect Ms Tremain set out to achieve or, more unkindly, it doesn’t live up to its pretensions. On the other hand there are far worse such novels out there, so I’ve finally settled on three stars.

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