It is 1830 and 14-year-old Mary lives on a farm with her three sisters, her parents and her grandfather. The girls are expected to work and work hard. Their father is disappointed he hasn’t sired a son and the grandfather is too old to help, confined to the apple room in the basement of the house.
Mary, our narrator, has her own problems:
my leg is my leg and i ain’t never known another leg. it’s the way i always been and the way i always walked. mother says it was like that when i come out into the world. i was some scrap of a thing with hair like milk and i was born later than they thought and for that reason i was covered in some hair like i was an animal and my nails was long. and she says i took one look around me and i opened my mouth and I yelled and some say i ain’t never shut it since.
She shares a bed with her sister Beatrice who keeps hold of a bible and prays. Her other sisters Violet and Hope, are very tall and filthily tempered respectively. Violet also has an eye for the boys and early in the novel, Mary sees her having sex with Ralph, the vicar’s son, in the barn. Although it’s Hope who is caught talking to him the following day:
and that’s when they come in. father first, hauling hope behind him, and her squalling and going. he had her by the arm and he shoved her down on the bench. blood fell out her nose and down her face and on the table.
Before long, Mary is made to go and work at the vicarage, looking after Mrs Graham, the vicar’s ill wife. The arrangement is made between the vicar and Mary’s father, who receives the payment for Mary’s work.
The novel highlights the complete lack of control girls and women had over their lives at this time. Their work is dictated by their fathers or their husbands, whom their pay is given to; their bodies are subject to men’s desires and if a pregnancy occurs as a result, it is theirs to worry about, their child which needs to be cared for. If they are to receive any education, it is at the hands of a man who will decide how much they should know. University is not open to them.
As grim as this theme is, The Colour of Milk is actually a joy of a novel. Mary’s voice is largely responsible for this; it is distinctive and engaging and has a rhythm that makes it seem poetic. Mary as a character is also someone who we warm to:
mary, she said. what you doing?
whatsit look like i’m doing? i asked.
looks like you been letting the hens out, she said.
really? i said. that’s strange cos i ain’t been doing that. i been dancing with the cockerel and then we had a feast together and the pig came and he sat on the top chair and he sang us all a song.
So when she tries any way she can to wrestle back some control for herself, you’ll find yourself rooting for her. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Read it!
Thanks to Penguin for the review copy.
The Colour of Milk is one of this year’s Fiction Uncovered titles. From the website:
Fiction Uncovered creates the opportunity for eight British fiction writers (novels, short stories, graphic novels) to be part of a major promotion supported by retailers, and a major publicity and marketing campaign.
This year’s titles are:
All The Beggers Riding – Lucy Caldwell
How I Killed Margaret Thatcher – Anthony Cartwright
Black Bread White Beer – Niven Govinden
The Village – Nikita Lalwani
The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon
The Heart Broke In – James Meek
Orkney – Amy Sackville
Secrecy – Rupert Thomson
I have a review of The Village coming up at the end of the week and All the Beggars Riding within the next couple of weeks.