From a Jehovah’s Witness in the Black Country to a sex worker in London, Paul Mendez’s semi-autobiographical novel Rainbow Milk is unlike the coming-of-age stories you’ve previously read.
Nineteen-year-old Jesse McCarthy is a well-respected Jehovah’s Witness in the West Midlands coming to terms with his sexuality. When he is disfellowshipped and shunned by the congregation and his parents, Jesse moves to London seeking a fresh start. Making ends meet in the capital as a prostitute, he discovers what it means to explore his identity on his terms.
The novel begins in the 1950s, introducing us to a Jamaican ex-boxer and gardener named Norman Alonso. Norman and his wife move to the Black Country in 1956 hoping for more opportunities and a better life. He does all he can to provide for his family, but the hostility and hardship that characterises their new lives in England are too much to bear. The book has a strong beginning. I enjoyed learning about Norman and his family and upbringing in Jamaica. His story pulled me in straight away and I wanted to know a lot more about him. Mendez is an excellent writer. His prose is rich, descriptive and full of life, never flat or boring. The way he describes settings and environments in this book is incredible.
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We first meet Jesse in 2002, as a 19-year-old sex worker living in London. Rainbow Milk mostly takes place in early 2000s London and revisits Jesse’s life in the West Midlands. These windows into Jesse’s past reveal a lot about his life growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness and his complicated relationship with his parents. The lack of familial love and affection Jesse received growing up becomes painfully clear. His mother intrigued me. She comes across as resentful and abusive towards her only son. On the other hand, his white adoptive father Graham, despite his efforts, clearly never quite knew how to be a Dad to Jesse.
Jesse’s character is so vivid and in many ways his story is heartbreaking. His rejection from the Witnesses and his family in the West Midlands makes it easy to empathise with him. I also felt protective of him. His story is rather unique, but at the heart of it lies a universal human experience of self-discovery. He is figuring out who he is as he navigates life in a new city. Jesse’s sexual and racial awakenings are handled with frankness and humour. The realisation that he is a black gay man in a racist world leads him to reflect on the ways race impacts how others perceive him and how he perceives himself and how it often feeds into his interactions with others.
Rainbow Milk contains explicit sexual content which may not be suitable for the prudish or faint-hearted. I enjoyed the graphic erotica in this book and love how Mendez writes about lust, desire and sexual pleasure.
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My favourite part of Rainbow Milk is roughly halfway through the novel when Jesse spends Christmas with his housemate Owen. Mendez beautifully captures the emotional intimacy and mild sexual tension that develops between the two men as they have a heart-to-heart. It’s a stunning piece of writing.
Rainbow Milk is an original, raw, vibrant novel that explores race, religion, class and sexuality. This novel is full of drugs, sex, music and trauma but also hope. It was the moments of joy, tenderness and love that touched me the most. The connections that are drawn to the Windrush generation make this novel even more compelling and thought-provoking. Many of Jesse’s struggles are similar to those who came before him.
While my life and upbringing are very different from Jesse’s, I related to parts of his story. Rainbow Milk is a brilliant exploration of the intersections of race, class and sexuality. It reminds us why we can’t afford to separate or overlook race when we talk about sexuality and vice versa. Paul Mendez has written a very special book. It is an original and thrilling read that highlights the experiences and histories of black people in Britain.
Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez is publishing 23rd April 2020.
My rating: 9.5/10
A big thank you to NetGalley and Dialogue Books for providing me with an advance digital copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.