The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

This is a small book, but it feels very substantial. Because it contains a unique voice, and a story that voice it wants to tell so very, very much.

“this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.

i want to tell you what it is that happened but i must be ware not to rush at it like the heifers at a gate for if i do that i will get ahead of myself so quick that i will trip and fall and anyway you will want me to start where a person ought to.

and that is at the beginning.”

The style is idiosyncratic and the voice is distinctive. It only took a few pages for me to settle in, and then I wanted to know Mary’s story just as much she wanted to tell it.

I could hear her voice in my head, and at the same time I was asking myself questions.

How was it that, in 1831,  a poor farm girl had learned how to read and write?

And whatever had happened, over the course of the four seasons of one year, to make the telling of her story so  very urgent?

Mary was the fourth child, and the fourth daughter of a farmer. A man who wanted sons, and when they didn’t arrive he began to take his frustration, his anger, out on his wife and daughters. They were cowed by him but there was also a camaraderie, a sisterhood between them.

Mary often caught the worst of his temper. Because she had spirit and a very natural honesty. She took such delight in life and the world around her that she was terribly easily distracted from what she was supposed to be doing. It wasnt;t that she was unwilling to work, but other things called so much louder.

(I understood. I’m the same with housework and books …)

Maybe that’s why her father pushed Mary forward when the local vicar came looking for a domestic servant.

Mary’s candour and personality endear her to the vicar’s invalid wife. He is pleased, he is eager to help the girl, but he is heedless of the possible consequences. And a son, who has crossed paths with Mary’s family before, looks on.

The seasons pass. Relationships grow. but other things changes. The story that unfolds has familiar elements, echoes of other stories,  but it uses them very cleverly to create something a little different.

I had an idea of what would happen, and often I was right. But not always, and the ending made me catch my breath.

The prose is sparse, the story is short, and yet it holds so much. Every character is simply but perfectly drawn, and each and every one is important. Just a few words of description, a few words of dialogue painted wonderful pictures of lives and relationships. And of a place and time.

This is a story utterly of its time, and yet it is a story that says things about relationships between families, between sexes, between classes, that a 19th century novel never could.

But the best thing of all was Mary’s voice. She never faltered. Her voice rang true.

And, even now I have put the book down, she and her story continue to haunt me.

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