Category Archives: Fig Tree

The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

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.

*****, Fig Tree/Penguin Books, 2012, hardback, fiction, 172 pages, kindly sent by publisher

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?

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Filed under Books of 2012, Fig Tree, Nell Leyshon, Penguin Books, Review

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

Oh how the best laid plans and intentions can go awry. You may have heard me mentioning that in order to egg Polly of Novel Insights and myself to read Kathryn Stockett’s ‘The Help’ a little sooner (as we had both been meaning to for ages) we arranged to have a rogue book group of just the two of us on Monday night. Well by that point Polly was only a third of the way through and I had barely started. So instead we had dinner and watch the movie of Peyton Place which we both rather enjoyed. The next day I picked up ‘The Help’ properly, I know I am very late to this book people have been raving about it for ages and it’s been a choice on a TV Book Club here in the UK, and simply couldn’t put it down.

‘The Help’ is a tale of three women in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. Two of the women, Aibileen and Minny, are black maids looking after the houses and children of white women who spend their times organising benefits and spending their husbands money. Skeeter (or Miss Skeeter/Miss Phelan as she can be known) is a white woman in the area with a difference as though she mingles with the other white ladies she doesn’t really feel like one of them and not just because she is the only single one left (hilarious scene with her mother about this are plentiful) but because she sees things differently. In fact as her closest friends Hilly and Elizabeth discuss having separate toilets fitted in their houses for the black maids Skeeter almost falls out with them as she questions the need. You see while these ladies are happy to have home help looking after their children and cooking their food they don’t actually want to be ‘contaminated’ by them.

As the novel moves on Skeeter looks back at her childhood and her beloved maid Constantine who vanished while she was at college and decides she wants to know what happened to her and in doing so wants to know what it’s really like for these women and how they are really treated, she also wants to write a book about them (I will admit I inwardly groaned at this slightly predictable cliché but it did work and moved the story on). Minny meanwhile after a rather rogue incident has to find a new job with a rather reclusive and strange mistress and Aibileen is getting more and more attached to the child in her care who’s mother doesn’t seem to care for at all. All strands merge and create a wonderful tale of three rather marvellous women. The outcome of course you will have to read yourself but be prepared for much laughter and some tears and anger along the way.

I have to hand it to Stockett as for a debut novel this is something really rather special. The era is drawn out for you warts and all and yet never to the point where every single thing is described, she’s clearly researched everything but isn’t going to show off about it all as some authors tend to do. There are those fiction books that read like a text book every other paragraph, this isn’t one of them. The three main characters are drawn wonderfully; Skeeter being quite a character gives you an insight, through her friend and family and occasionally herself, into the minds of the white woman at the time. Minny and Aibileen, though in similar circumstances, are completely different personalities with their stories to tell and each ones voice rings loud and true; the brashness of Minny and the cheek in contrast to the more demure and often emotional Aibileen.   

I found Stockett’s set up of Skeeter’s family an interesting one as living on a cotton plantation her family made masses of money from slavery, the author reminds us of this now and again and so it contrasts with Skeeter as a person. I also really admired that Stockett doesn’t preach, and that could be very easy in a book like this. Instead she creates a tale that looks at both sides (the villains are truly villainous) from both view points. It serves as a great reminder just how recently all of this actually happened, and reading Kathryn Stockett’s non fictional addition at the end you see just what impact it has all had on her and why she needed to write this book. A marvellous tale from a debut author who I think we can expect great things from. I would suggest you pick this up when you have lots of spare time as you might not be able to put it down.

A book that will: make you angry and hopeful, laugh and cry, and leave you missing the three main characters long after you have closed the book and popped it on your shelf.  9/10

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners;

The Long Song by Andrea Levy – A tale of the plantations of Jamaica and its people in the last years of slavery with a narrator you will not forget. A wonderful book.
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan – Tales of the cotton farms in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940’s as war rages and people of both colours have to come together despite their differences to fight for freedom.

So who has read ‘The Help’ and what did you think, I suspect there are lots of you. In fact maybe I should ask who hasn’t read this yet.

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Filed under Books of 2010, Fig Tree, Kathryn Stockett, Penguin Books, Review