Tuesday, January 8, 2013

REVIEW: The Colour of Milk, by Nell Leyshon

The Colour of Milk, by Nell Leyshon. Published 2012 by Ecco. Literary Fiction.

"this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand."

So begins the testament of Mary, a young girl aged fifteen as she writes. It's 1831 and, instilled with a sense of urgency that we don't understand right away, she tells us she's the daughter of a bitter man with a house full of girls, cast off to be the servant of a pastor and his reclusive wife. Bright, a hard worker and just a little rebellious, Mary endeavors to work hard- making bread, cleaning, taking care of the "mrs." as she calls the pastor's wife, suffering from a nameless illness and confined to her bed. Hard work is the only life she's ever known, and all she expects to know.

But Mary has some adjustments to make at her new home. She misses her family, especially her grandfather, the only person to ever show her love. She misses her sisters, especially one who is pregnant by the pastor's son. And she has a hard time assimilating the relative luxury of the new place. She also has a hard time with the pastor, who doesn't abuse her exactly- at least not at first- but who doesn't seem to understand that Mary is not an automaton, that she has feelings and a will of her own. Too bad for him. But he does teach her to read and write, and so she is able to tell us her story.

The Colour of Milk has been compared to Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace in the way Leyshon deals with themes of power and submission, and class and gender conflict. The comparison is apt but The Colour of Milk is a much less complex book than Atwood's searing masterwork. There's no real ambiguity here, no real question about what happens- just Mary telling her tale in that naive, straightforward style. The writing strikes me as the literary equivalent of folk art- simple but masking a rich inner life. I enjoyed reading the book, watching Mary's world unfold and the course of her life along with it. The action moved at a smooth pace and the suspense, though muted, whispered its presence throughout. At a mere 176 pages, it's a relatively quick read and lots of readers will be intrigued and won over by Mary's simple story, as timeless and universal as it is unique.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.