THE PLOT: ‘Rainbow Milk’ by Paul Mendez is a literary novel about a Black-British boy embracing his sexuality. The novel opens in 1950’s England with Norman Alonso. Norman has moved his family from Jamaica to the Black Country for a better life. The book’s timeline then switches to the early 2000’s where an adopted teenage boy called Jesse is part of a repressive religious community. Even though Jesse is a shining example of his faith, one accusation shatters his world and he is kicked out of the religion. Jesse moves to London, embraces being gay and becomes a sex worker. But Jesse cannot stop wondering about his biological father.
RATING: Buckle up because I have a lot to say and some of it is going to be extremely unpopular. If you’d asked me what rating I’d give this book when I was halfway through, I would’ve said five stars. The historical opening set in 1950’s Black Country was perfection and the plight of Jesse leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses was so powerful. But dear oh dear, this book fell off a cliff! It’s just my opinion but the second half was very boring. Okay, there was lovely writing, interesting exploration of sex work and a romantic relationship but the plot felt non-existent. I think the storyline about Jesse looking for his father is supposed to be the main point but it’s overshadowed by never-ending internal angst. So, all in all, it’s three and a half stars from me.
GOOD BITS: Despite my criticisms, please be assured that this novel is very well written. The prose leaps off the page and there is no doubt that Paul Mendez is an incredible writer. In fact, the strength of the opening might be why I have such strong feelings. Norman is an extremely compelling character as he grapples with racism, sexuality, gender stereotypes and disability. Jesse denying his sexuality in order to please the Jehovah’s Witnesses and his mother was so moving. The Black Country setting, with declining industry between the timelines, feels (regrettably) original as literary representation of Black people in the midlands can be limited.
In summary, I think the opening half set in the Black Country was great because there was implicit internal tension in the set-up of each timeline. A Black person in rural England in the 1950’s – the racism and tensions are already there. A gay person in an extreme Christian community – the homophobia and tensions are already there. The plot writes itself due to the strong characters. But when Jesse got to London, he was free to live his life as he wanted. He was an adult and could make his own choices so there was no external tension and very few external plot points to inject this tension.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: For me, this book started to go south when Jesse met Owen. Over seventy pages we get a description of a Christmas day where Jesse and Owen fall in love. It’s told in painstakingly slow detail and the climax feels completely random. Honestly, Owen bored me and I just couldn’t care about their relationship. Overall, I strongly feel like this book needed more chapters from the point of view of Norman Alonso in the 1950’s. He is the first character the reader meets and connects with, but he completely disappears from the story. Perhaps it just went over my head but I needed a sharper connection between Norman Alonso, Robert Alonso and Jesse in the narrative as part of the external plot.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘The Lonely Londoners’ by Sam Selvon, ‘Mr Loverman’ by Bernadine Evaristo and ‘Real Life’ by Brandon Taylor. This novel has won tons of awards and fans of literary fiction may fall in love with it on the strength of the writing alone. It might also be a book I reflect on and see more merits in as time goes on. But, for now, it didn’t live up to my expectations.