Rating: A-/ I can’t remember the last time I felt this emotionally drained after reading a book. It’s a tricky business to write a novel in an intentionally childish and grammatically incorrect style so as to capitalize on the narrator’s illiteracy, but I think this book pulled that off wonderfully. Although that sounds like it would be difficult to read, I found myself getting pulled into the pragmatic and plain-spoken heroine, Mary’s world without too much confusion. Moreover, I fell in love with Mary’s voice and, withholding spoilers, it broke my heart that things didn’t work out better for her than they did.
The Colour of Milk is set in the English countryside during the mid 19th century, and Mary, the novel’s narrator, is the fifteen-year-old daughter of an abusive farmer father. Mary has a bad leg, but that doesn’t stop her from carrying out her duties on the farm with no complaints. She’s also independent, honest, and says exactly what’s on her mind without much regard to the consequences. Mary’s three sisters treat her as if she’s a bit ‘slow,’ and the only member of the family who seems to be on Mary’s side is her invalid grandfather, who is treated as worthless by her parents because of his inability to work on the farm.
Mary’s dad rents her out as an indentured servant to the vicar and his sick wife. The vicar’s wife immediately takes a shine to Mary and her plainspoken manner. However, when the vicar’s wife dies the vicar takes an inappropriate interest in Mary, and Mary goes to desperate measures to stop the assaults. Even though Mary’s employer is a pervert and a sexual predator, he also does something good for her in the form of teaching her to read. Mary’s story is told in retrospect, as she uses her newfound literacy to explain to the reader what actually happened between her and her boss.
I don’t see Mary as a unreliable narrator as much as a hyper-reliable one, if that makes sense. Like Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mary can’t lie to save her life, and her unfettered honesty proves to be difficult for her as the novel goes on. A lot of her dialogue seems initially to be intentionally hurtful and rude, but she isn’t looking for a fight or trying to hurt others. She just calls it the way she sees it, and the other characters in the book are alternately angered and amused by Mary’s complete lack of a filter.
The Colour of Milk highlights the differences between the classes in 19th-century Britain, but at the same time it feels surprisingly contemporary. The prose could be considered almost Cormac McCarthy-esque, because of the lack of proper grammar and punctuation. Periods are often used in the place of commas, which makes the prose odd and sometimes hard to follow. I didn’t find the novel particularly hard to understand, but that might be because I’ve read several books with similar narratives over the past few weeks, including Push and The Color Purple.
Mary’s voice is blunt, unsentimental, and never preachy, and I developed a fondness for her character early on. There’s a lot to take from this novel about the gender roles and class differences that were such a integral part of this time and place, but you never feel like you’re receiving a history lesson. The struggles of the main character come to life and you find yourself floored by her strength and determination and wanting her to succeed.
The Colour of Milk is a short but powerful novel, anchored by the narrator’s extraordinary voice. Although the ending is ultimately an unhappy one, the book speaks volumes about remaining strong under horrific circumstances. The prose, while simple and matter-of-fact, packs a massive punch. I did think the whole plot development of the vicar as a sexual predator was a little cliché; perhaps the book would have surprised us more if he had turned out to be a hell of a good guy.
However, I can say that this book took hold of my heart and didn’t let go until the final page was done. Nell Leyshon does such a good job building a palpable sense of dread that even when nothing seems to be happening, the reader waits with bated breath for everything to deteriorate fast. When it does, it’s tough on the soul, but not surprising. The Colour of Milk seems unfortunately to not be all that well known at this point, but it’s a compelling novel that is well worth the time of the readers who choose to seek it out.