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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

February 26, 2013

Book Review: The Colour of Milk

The Colour of Milk

I'm not typically keen on works that push the envelope of fiction. I tend to like my literature the way I like my music. Classic. Major keys. Straight out of the Great American Song Book. But I have to say that Nell Leyshon's latest novella,The Colour of Milk (Publisher: Ecco; On Sale: January 2013; Cost: $14.95) is by far one of the more creatively written works I've read in recent months. And to Ms. Leyshon's credit, it's rather difficult to put down.

The novel traces the life of 15 year old Mary who is one of four girls born to a local farmer. Mary has the unfortunate luck of being both sharp-witted and physically disabled, a fact that makes her a liability in the eyes of her father who would rather have had a boy than a girl, and an able-bodied girl than a disabled one. Making matters even more frustrating for readers is the fact that Mary's mother is a complete invertebrate, a passive soul who would rather see her three daughters severely punished than save them from a life of hardship and abuse. 

Mary's elderly, invalid Grandfather is in a similar strait of ignominy amongst the family, spending his time in a cupboard beneath the stairs. Or perhaps that's a different story. At any rate, theirs is the most honest and innocent relationship of the entire novel in that it's not based upon any sort of quid pro quo. The grandfather loves his granddaughter unconditionally and the granddaughter loves her grandfather. Not to mention that she's really the only person in the family to give a damn about the ailing old man.

Before the reader has the opportunity to get extremely upset with Mary's parents, the poor lass is shipped off down the road to the local vicar's house to tend to the minister's dying wife. The arrangement is a hasty one, with the vicar paying Mary's father a sum for her services as a housekeeper, whilst providing her room and board as she learns the trade of managing a household. Naturally, none of this occurs with even the facade of Mary's consent.     

From this point, the story progresses rapidly when Mary begins to learn to read. Accordingly, the entire novel is written in lowercase, giving readers a true sense of Mary's voice and the mental struggles she endures. In fact, it's this theme of endurance that underpins much of the novel. Leyshon's work challenges readers to consider their own limits in a situation of hardship - particularly the price one would be willing to pay for the gift of literacy (a gift that in most Western countries we take for granted). Mary's lot in the story is very much imbued with this conundrum and the resolution of matters isn't an obviously moral one.  

While I won't reveal much more of the plot, I will add a word of caution for those interested. Mary's situation could easily be read from the perspective of a modern, feminist social commentary on female opportunities in the 1830s. But, given that Jane Austen has more or less run the field in this sub-genre, a much better way of understanding Leyshon's work is to appreciate the existential value it provides - think Camus's The Stranger rather than Pride and Prejudice. Leyshon's work requires that readers undertake a moral assessment at nearly every turn, underscoring how so much of life is lived in neither black nor white but in the monochrome of grey.

In all, it's difficult not to recommend a novel that challenges one to question so many assumptions. Not to mention the fact that the work is well written and told from a truly unique perspective. All of the above, of course, is a tribute to this pithy author who manages to say much while writing fairly little.  

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