Every so often you meet a character in fiction that you will remember for the rest of your life. These don’t always have to be the narrators of a book nor do they have to be likeable, I am thinking of Mrs Danvers now in ‘Rebecca’, yet when they are it makes a book very, very difficult to put down. In ‘The Colour of Milk’ by Nell Leyshon, an author I hadn’t come across until this book which is her fourth, with Mary and the story she tells I found one of those exact books and (cliché alert) I simply could not put the book down.
It is 1831 when we meet Mary, or as she writes ‘in this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am reached the age of fifteen’, a young girl and one of four daughters living on a farm where you work, sleep and eat before doing it all over again the next day. The family isn’t a particularly happy one, particularly as it is led by an angry and unpredictable father who will even beat his own father if he dare cross him. Mary herself is rather unruly and some what the black sheep (farm pun not intended) of the family, this could be all from the fact she was born with a crippled leg at birth, and soon is forced to move away, yet oddly doesn’t want to leave, to the vicarage to care for the vicars invalid wife.
‘he ain’t lazy, i said. he ain’t got no choice but to sit there. ain’t like his legs’d take him anywhere.
might as well be dead for all the use he is, she said.
wish i were dead, grandfather said, having to listen to you going on like that.’
Before you all think I have lost the plot (and the use of spell check on my lovely new laptop) the way the novel is written is one of the things that make it so special, alongside Mary’s narration which as a device it also underlines, because it isn’t your usual fare. You see the tale of an unhappy farm girl who moves to the big house, where good or bad things might happen to her, is not really an original one. However with Mary’s character and the fact the novel is written as she talks, and sometimes almost phonetically ‘straw berry’, really adds to the voice of the novel and makes it stand out. It also somehow gives it that feel of being a classic novel even though it is a contemporary novel, the last time I read a book like this was Jane Harris’ ‘The Observations’ narrated by the ever swearing and gutsy Bessy Buckley, and I loved Mary just as much.
‘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 if a thing with hair like milk and 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.’
Really Mary is the reason that you end up loving the book so much, well it was for me. She is a heroine of teh first degree; gutsy, funny and tells it like it is, occasionally she almost breaks your heart too. The book is a story of a girl who leaves an unhappy home, yet we figure that out as we read on because really Mary is quite happy with her life on the whole thank you very much. The fact the story is reminiscent of a Victorian classic also works in the books favour because it feels comfortable and yet different, does that make sense? I have to admit that i did hazard a guess at ending that seems to have shocked other people I know who have read it, which I will not spoil or even hint at, not that it stopped me loving the book because I was being taken along by Mary who I could have read for another few hundred pages or more.
There are certain books that you instantly take to aren’t there. Books which coax you into the heart of their tale and just have you hooked. ‘The Colour of Milk’ by Nell Leyshon is one such book, for me it is one of those books that is pretty much perfect, in fact so much so I would dare any of you to read it and not do it in one reading gulp. Seriously, I dare you to prove me wrong. And if you don’t believe me then check out reviews from bloggers I trust, and who agree, here and here, one of my books of the year without a doubt. Now who has read any of Nell Leyshon’s other novels?
15 responses to “The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon”
This sounds like a rather intriguing novel. I discovered when searching for more info on the author that she was nominated for the Orange Prize in 2005 for Black Dirt. (I follow the Orange rather closely; this is obviously one of those titles that completely flew under the radar. I haven’t heard any mention of it prior to this.)
I hadn’t heard of the author until this book came out and am now really keen to read all of her other novels. I think I will start with her first, which is Black Dirt as you mention (and sounds great). I have a bery early certainty that I may have discovered a new possible favourite author.
I’m going to have a read of this!
Do Fiona, it is totally worth it, a marvellous read.
I loved this one too, Simon. Without question it is Mary’s voice that makes the novel special – it is just so strong and fresh – but I also really enjoyed the rural/nature aspects, with the cycle of the seasons giving structure to the novel. I’m with you on not being wholly surprised by the ending but then I’m not sure it was ever supposed to be a twist or a surprise, since it was fairly clearly signposted, especially once you knew where the story was inevitably going to lead, but like you, this didn’t spoil it for me one jot – the inevitability simply adds to the tragedy.
I read ‘Black Dirt’ when it came out and though I clearly enjoyed it (on my reading list for that year I’ve given it 4 stars) I honestly don’t remember a thing about it now. But then some writers’ work is just like that isn’t it? And the nice thing is that if I ever re-read it it will all seem wonderfully fresh and new.
I should have mentioned the nature aspects and the seasons of the book in more detail actually, shame on me, but I didn’t want to review to be too long or too praising as that can seem a little bit too much sometimes I think. I did love the ending even though I guessed it and I was saddened by it. No spoilers though…
I do really want to read Black Dirt now and her other novels too.
I loved this little book too. Mary was a compelling voice. I was shocked at the ending – the first part I worked out, but not the rest!
She is wonderful isn’t she Annabel? It is rare you come across such a compelling narrator and I was wishing the book was even longer the nearer I got to the end.
So glad you enjoyed this one, Simon — and thanks for linking to my review. It’s Mary’s voice that makes this book so special and memorable. I heard the author do a reading of this at the Penguin bloggers evening earlier this year (and got her to sign my copy) and she just brought it all to life in a very thick West Country accent — wonderful stuff! 🙂
A pleasure Kim, I may have been rubbish at commenting of late but I have been reading when I can. I owe you an email actually, back to the book… I had no idea that Nell was from the north west, I wonder if that is therefor where the novel is sort of set? I kept thinking of the Peaks and the Dales oddly.
I loved this book. Mary is a wonderful character and the voice the author creates for her is so distinct and convincing. So good to see how many other readers have enjoyed this one too.
This book does indeed have its fans it seems. In fact that has reminded me, I need to go and vote for this one (and do another mini review of it) for the Not The Booker Prize. How on earth did this one miss out from the Booker longlist?
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