In 1864, Joseph Blackstone, his new wife Harriet, and his mother Lilian emigrated from England to New Zealand in search of a better life. Lilian, recently widowed, pines for her former lifestyle and resents having to live on their remote farm. But at the same time, she also hopes to rise above her station, and is disappointed to encounter familiar class barriers in New Zealand:
The familiar feeling of being snubbed — a feeling she’d thought belonged only to England, where the disdain of the upper classes infected every encounter — made Lilian want to weep, or, worse, give Dorothy Orchard a vicious swipe across her badly coiffed head. Lilian was particularly vexed by the knowledge that she never understood exactly how people like Dorothy Orchard achieved their instantaneous mastery over others outside their class. It happened before you noticed it, like a perfectly executed card trick. (p. 78)
Joseph is arrogant and stubborn, refusing to listen to advice from the locals on where to build his house, and what materials to use. Joseph and Harriet have an odd relationship. Joseph has a secret in his past, and married for all the wrong reasons. It’s not clear what they see in one another, and it doesn’t take long for Harriet to realize she will never truly love Joseph:
For day by day, she kept secret from him her own lovelessness. It piled up in her. At times, it was not merely lack of love that she felt; it was hatred of the blackest kind. And though she struggled to conceal it from him, perhaps she succeeded no better than he did with his blatant heaps of earth? In the nights, she often awoke at first light to see him staring at her, his eye close to hers, his fists clenched around the sheets. Did he know that she did not love him? Did he understand all too clearly that she loved the wilderness he had brought her to, but not him? (p. 95)
Yet both Harriet and Lilian are committed to making their farm a success, even after Joseph finds gold in a nearby creek and decides to join the hundreds of other men seeking their fortunes in New Zealand’s gold rush. Circumstances eventually force Harriet to go off on her own, in search of Joseph.
The story is told from alternating points of view with chapters narrated by Harriet, Joseph, and a couple of other characters who weave nicely into the storyline. Joseph turns out to be an arrogant and hapless loner, unable to relate to women and desperate to please his mother by accumulating wealth. Harriet is strong and independent, undaunted by Joseph’s failings and refusing to bow to societal expectations of women. It is only through Harriet’s intelligence that the couple have any chance of finding gold and making something of their lives together.
But that’s only part of this story; Rose Tremain has more to say than “just” historical drama laced with love. She also shows how the quest for gold took its toll on the land and destroyed both individuals and communities. Those who are untouched by greed and continued leading simple lives were by far the happiest and, one could argue, the most successful.