Book Review: The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

This is a very sad and thought provoking tale written from the perspective of Mary, a fifteen year old farm girl, lame and hair the colour of milk. Her sharp tongue and irascible nature often earn her a clout or a beating from her father. She is the youngest of four daughters, all of whom are resented by their father for not being sons. The only affection in Mary's life comes from her grandfather, who is also disabled.

In the summer of 1830, Mary is sent to work for the local vicar, whose wife is an invalid. Unhappy at first, she accepts her new life mainly because she has no other choice, but then she discovers the joy of learning to read. She is determined to master this skill, to read to her grandfather, make him proud, but little does she know what she will sacrifice to realise her dream.

The Colour of Milk is Mary's record of what happened to her over the past year. She begins by introducing us to her family and life on the farm because "you will want me to start where a person ought to. and that is at the beginning."

Mary then goes on to tell of her new employment and, what seems to her, the strange habits of her employers, her rapport with the vicar's wife and her wariness of Ralph, the vicar's son. Mary's observations of life in the vicar's household are honest and at times humourous, as only a child's can be.

As Mary's story unfolds, she hints that time is running out and she must hurry to finish her record. The reason is not revealed until the final page though there are clues along the way. These fall into place at the end.

This is an unusual novel, written in the first person, in lower case and with a minimum of punctuation. A little disconcerting at first, but it works well. The prose is simplistic as one would expect from an uneducated fifteen year old.

Other techniques are used cleverly by the author to bring Mary's story to life, emphasising that she is a simple country girl knowing nothing of the world except how it is governed by a life on the land. Mary marks the passing of time by referencing it to what her family would be doing at the farm and what is taking place at the vicarage.

The novel is divided into four prefaced sections. Each section is named for a season and each preface begins with the line "this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand ...". I felt the repetitive use of this phrase reaffirms Mary's pride in what she has accomplished and asserts her independence.

However, techniques aside, Nell Leyshon provides Mary with a very distinctive voice, allowing her to speak directly to the reader and by her own words reveal the many facets of her nature. Her warmth when speaking of her grandfather leaves no doubt that she shares an affectionate relationship with him. In contrast, she often refers to her father coldly as "he". Mary is an unforgettable character, totally without guile, honest, clever and witty, which makes the choice she makes all the more devastating.

As mentioned at the beginning of my review, this is a sad and thought provoking story. It highlights the plight of girls and women in the 19th century, how their lives were controlled by fathers, husbands, brothers and, as in Mary's case, also employers. The basic skills of reading and writing, ones that we take for granted today, are also at the core of this story and what one person will do to acquire that knowledge given the chance.

The Colour of Milk is a quick read. It is only 172 pages in length and I read it in a day. This is the first novel I have read by Nell Leyshon. I found it very moving and one that I will remember for a very long time.

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