9th May 2012
The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon
“Happiness never did no one any good” says our narrator’s mother, who could easily have indulged in spittle and biscuits with Jeanette Winterson’s mum were in not for the fact that Mary, the 15-year-old heroine of The Colour of Milk, is writing ‘in this year of the lord eighteen hundred and thirty one.’
This is Nell Leyshon’s second novel. Her début, Black Dirt, caught the attention of the Orange Prize panel. She writes plays for radio and penned Bedlam, the first play for Shakespeare’s Globe to be written by a woman.
Leyshon was born in Glastonbury, lives in Dorset and infuses this unravelling, confessional tale rooted in mud and toil with a fine balance of detail.
Leyshon also wrote a play called Comfort Me with Apples. For Mary, the youngest and seemingly the physical runt of four sisters in The Colour of Milk there is little comfort in life, yet it is she who dotes on her neglected grandfather who sleeps between wooden boxes of the fruit in the apple room. At least the apples have purpose.
Mary’s ability to draw sustenance from her unenviable situation in which she, Violet, Beatrice and Hope are clearly poor substitutes for swarthy sons that were never sired by their fearsome father is quite remarkable. There’s no excuses made for the ‘fairer’ sex on the farm and Mary is fairer than most.
It is her biting wit that makes her such a compelling protagonist, wary of her lot in life but like a shackled horse that has broken free, stubborn and unrestrained. Her snappy retorts oozing wisdom beyond her years leave others dumbstruck and me smiling.
There’s massive pride amongst the lower case ‘i’s abundant in this book as Mary acquires a skill for herself, but with the changing seasons a backdrop to chapters revealing “i must write quick for i do not have much time,” you know there aren’t many grains left in the egg-timer.
This is a short novel described as Brontë-esque and paralleled with the best of Hardy. And it sure as hell packs a punch. Leyshon’s deftness in the crafting a tale this taut means that as a reader, you will glide from one chapter to the next.
Will you too find yourself desperately back-peddling as the sense of impending doom becomes too much to bear? The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon is published by Fig Tree at the end of the month. Pre-order the hardback for £5.70 or the Kindle edition for £7.99.
Recommended for: Fans of the classics full of furrows and farm stock, muddy stockings, loam and gloom.