The Colour of Milk, Nell Leyshon
this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.(…) my name is mary and I have learned to spell it. m. a. r. y. that is how you letter it.
On the very first page of Nell Leyshons newest bok, The Colour of Milk, we are introduced to the protagonist who, writing in first person is writing it by her own hand. Do not be scared off by this assumed tautology, but rest assured that it is set in 1831 and even if Jane Austen took it for granted to write not everybody else did. Definitely not hardworking fifteen-year-old farm girl Mary, whose hair I think it will surprise no one to learn is the colour of milk.
As Mary’s life is gradually introduced to us, it appears it was not easy to be her. With a truly horrible father, who beats his daughters, and sisters to whom Mary feels a camraderie, for sure, but apparently not that much affection (at first), and working on the farm from sunrise to sunset, life is hard. However, the reader is sure from the very start that something will change, as Mary is very persistent in her subtle forewarnings of things to come.
The twist of events is soon revealed, and I am sure I spoil nothing when I say that poor, limping, Mary is sent off from her unloving hearth and home (where the only one who cares for her is the paralysed grandfather, viewed by his son and daughter-in-law not so much a patriarch as a parasite) to care for the learned vicar’s poor consumptious wife. I suspect she might be fading away so she doesn’t have to mother her quite frankly unpleasant (though I am sure by no means exceptional or even unlikely) son Ralph. Though I guess he never had a chance, poor bloke, whatever good came out of being a character named Ralph?
I know that up until now this review really is not sounding that positive. I will admit that I was sceptical myself, even after having heard Nell Leyshon’s really spirited rendition of key extracts, read in a lovely accent which, being foreign, I have no chance whatsoever of identifying. If anyone knows please tell me, or I shall live in ignorance.
However, I was very soon completely engrossed in the narrative, sucked in by Mary’s extremely refreshing style. Her voice is un-self-pitying but nonetheless made me pity her and wish for a happy ending, it is blunt, but not unintelligent, plain but not naive. Honest – but sometimes only as an afterthought. The narrative also feels extremely convincing and authentic. Being a 20something 21st century non-farming Norwegian expat I have of course absolutely no way of knowing, but in my book if something feels authentic and unforced then I am satisfied (this, by the way, on a note of digression, is my beef with Ian McEwan, his forced research-pushing and the feeling that nothing, nothing, feels authentic. I am sure there will be more on that in another post). I read the entire 172 pages in one sitting, and am amazed at how unsuspecting I was of what was going to happen, and how completely immersed I was in Mary’s story by the end. Despite her constant hints to the changing of her situation, I was not prepared for what the actual change was, and am very impressed with Leyshon’s ability to simultaneously foreshadow and grab me by surprise.
This is a forthcoming novel that people who are looking for a fresh, distinct narrator should be aware of, and likewise lovers of a good, punchy story. (Not punchy as in violent. Though it was that too). The proof copy, so very kindly supplied by Penguin, calls Mary’s voice urgent and unforgettable. I wholeheartedly agree.
If you add the almost cinematic quality of Leyshon’s descriptions, you have a gritty, meadow-filled PG15 Tess of D’Urbervilles-style period drama with Saoirse Ronan (and a good helping of peroxide) just waiting to happen.
The Colour of Milk will be released by Fig Tree on the 31st of May.