Of human bondage

Rose Tremain is a versatile writer who never repeats herself, always finding new settings for her work, perhaps because, as she has remarked, “it is hard to engage with any originality with the England of 2001”. For The Colour (Chatto & Windus), her 12th novel, she chooses New Zealand in the 1860s.

Joseph Blackstone has emigrated from England to the South Island with his new wife, Harriet, and widowed mother. He ignores local advice and builds a house on an exposed hill, a wilful act for which they pay dearly. When Blackstone finds traces of gold in their creek, he impetuously joins the gold rush to Hotitika on the West Coast. At this point the plot starts to take unexpected turns, embracing such themes as class, loneliness, racial bigotry, exile and the predatory use of nature.

With her customary skill, Tremain weaves these themes into the lives of her wonderfully delineated and numerous characters, using several viewpoints for her complex and engrossing narrative.

Also concerned with the effects of colonialism, Susan Elderkin’s second novel, The Voices (Fourth Estate), has a mystical quality about it. The voices of the title belong to the wind blowing across the vast Australian landscape and to the spirits of the Aboriginal ancestors, now displaced by materialism and “progress”. A poor, white and neglected boy, Billy, is introduced to “the voices” by the song of an Aboriginal child spirit, Maisie, who wins his affections.

Named one of Granta‘s best young British novelists, Elderkin handles this difficult material well, never sinking into New Age mumbo-jumbo. Keeping to the present tense but employing various points of view, Elderkin shifts between Billy’s teens and 10 years later, when he is in hospital recovering from bizarre lacerations. These are recognised by an Aboriginal nurse as the marks of ritual punishment.

The mystery of these wounds and Elderkin’s novel as a whole are essentially allegorical, lamenting the devastation of Aboriginal culture.

Praba Moodley’s first novel, The Heart Knows No Colour (Kwela), is also, to some extent, a reflection on lost culture, set in Natal in 1879 and depicting indentured Indian labourers on a sugar-cane plantation. Sita is young woman who is spared the hardships of field work by a job as nursemaid to the owner’s children. This, however, proves dangerous in other ways as she soon falls in love with her mistress’s brother from England. Moodley’s vision is romantic and she tends to glamorise the lives of the workers, glossing over their near-slave status and the harsh conditions of their contracts. Nevertheless she is good at examining family dynamics, and the ties that bind.

Siri Hustvedt, on the other hand, never falls into romantic cliché or melodrama. In What I Loved (Sceptre) she, too, is concerned with family life, but also with character and identity, creativity and criticism, and the New York art world of the 1970s and 1980s.

The narrator, Leo Hertzberg, buys a painting from artist Bill Wechsler, and the two develop a friendship that soon includes their families. But when Leo’s son is killed in a canoeing accident, the tragedy paradoxically drives him and his wife apart.

Bill’s marriage has also failed and his son, Mark, a deeply disturbed boy, moves back and forth between his divorced parents. As the narrative proceeds, the plot becomes more complex and fraught with questions and ambiguities.


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