Originally published: 23 April 2020
Author: Paul Mendez
Published by: Dialogue Books
Genre: LGBT Fiction
Length: 353 pages
Reading dates: 6-10 April 2020
I like to read occasionally out of my comfort zone – I think it is good to expand my horizons and when I was offered me a copy of Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez, it ticked all the boxes.
Rainbow Milk begins in 1959 with ex-boxer Norman Alfonso who is a determined and humble Jamaican who travels to England with his pregnant wife Claudette as part of the Windrush generation, keen to secure a better future for themselves and their children. As the book starts, Norman is suffering from ill health, is practically blind and is left at home to look after his two children, while his wife is out working to support the family. It describes their shock that maybe life in Britain isn’t the golden experience they were promised and the racism they suffer as they settle in West Bromwich and their struggle to belong.
The book then moves to 2001 and tells the story of Jesse McCarthy. He is born in Dudley in the Black Country and is a Jehovah’s Witness, struggling with his sexuality. After an ill advised night out with a fellow member church member, where he drinks, smokes and makes a clumsy pass, he is disfellowshipped by the church and his mum and stepdad also disown him.
At 19, he seeks a fresh start in London soon finding all the men he desires for sex, before reasoning if he enjoys sex he may as well get paid for it and ends up working as a male prostitute.
The first 50 or so pages when we hear about Norman and his family are written almost entirely in the Jamaican dialect (with a bit of Black Country thrown in) and I loved this. It was hard to read at times and I might have struggled if it had gone on for the whole book but it really made me feel immersed in Norman’s life. It is difficult to read of the racism they suffered and the struggles they faced.
When we move to Jesse’s life, he has his own struggles. Being gay and black in the Jehovah’s Witness church is pretty impossible. Jesse’s mother is just awful to him – she treats him like dirt, offering him no love or support, despite him doing well at school and being a good son. As we hear about Jesse’s life, enjoying the sexual freedom London allows him, taking drugs and moving into sex work, we for the most part get the sense he is OK with his life. It isn’t until we spend a Christmas Day with him and his housemate Owen, in 2002 that we realise things aren’t good for Jesse. He fears he has AIDS after being injured during sex and we hear more about his life as he tells Owen about his childhood.
A proper coming of age story, I really enjoyed the West Bromwich setting and hearing people speak in the dialect (My grandparents were from the area and it brought back some great memories for me). I loved how much Jesse enjoys music (it is a running theme through the book) and I really enjoyed how Mendez sometimes takes his time, telling the story – Christmas Day 2002 takes around 80 pages. It is a real coming of age story and I learnt a lot! It is gritty but I was in awe of Jesse and seeing as this is semi-autobiographical, I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say I was glad it all turned out well for him in the end!
Reading back on this review, I don’t think I have done this book justice. Mendez has recently being selected by The Observer as one the their top 10 debut authors of 2020 and this is a stunning read, harrowing but without being depressing. Reading Rainbow Milk was definitely a positive experience! An important and powerful read from a strong, fresh new voice – another 5 star book for me.
Many thanks to Millie at Little Brown for sending me a finished copy.
About the author:
Paul Mendez was born and raised in the Black Country. He now lives in London and is studying for an MA in Black British Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. He has been a performing member of two theatre companies, and worked as a voice actor, appearing on audiobooks by Andrea Levy, Paul Theroux and Ben Okri, most recently recording Ian Wright’s A Life in Football for Hachette Audio. As a writer, he has contributed to the Times Literary Supplement and the Brixton Review of Books. Rainbow Milk is his debut novel.