Tag Archives: literacy

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon: a powerful little book by a playwright known for packing a punch

26 Mar

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon, review, book review, fiction, author, literacy, Penguin, playwright, BritishLike most Londoners, I’ve encountered my fair share of weirdos on the Tube. Vomiting drunks, end-of-the-world preaching psychos, the man who took time out of his life to tell me I have a Really Big Head (he wasn’t that weird actually, mostly just honest). But the day I finished The Colour of Milk, a new release written by playwright and novelist Nell Leyshon, I BECAME the weirdo. Because as I was standing there squished against someone’s armpit in the rush hour chaos, I hurled towards the ending and was so shocked that my jaw dropped open and I was stuck with a guppy-fish like facial expression for an amount of time that would have made my fellow passengers worry for my sanity (and their safety).

Because The Colour of Milk is a book where you KNOW something bad is going to happen, but it doesn’t make it any less shocking when it happens. Set in 1831, it’s told through the voice of 15-year-old Mary, an illiterate farm worker with hair ‘the colour of milk’. Living on a farm her family, Mary avoids beatings from her father by working tirelessly from dawn to dusk. It’s a grim existence, punctuated by violence, but what Mary lacks in physical strength she makes up for with a strong will and a sharp tongue. When her father sends her to work for the local vicar’s invalid wife, she starts a journey that will lead to both her freedom and her downfall.

i don’t like to tell you this. there are things i do not want to say. 

but i told my self i would tell you everything that happened. i said i would say it all and for this i must do it.

Written by Mary after she learns how to write, the narrative has a sense of urgency that becomes extremely compelling – maybe it’s the fact that Leyshon bashed out a draft in just 3 weeks, or maybe there’s a little more at work here. Occasionally, the grammar felt a little bit too perfect (although I just tried to sneak through it again and find some examples and I’m a bit stumped to be honest), but overall it’s hugely believable and even more so when Nell herself was reading it out in her native Somerset accent at the recent Penguin Bloggers Event (see below pic). Add a strong sense of foreboding to repeated references to ‘the colour of milk’ to add rhythm and structure, and you get a particularly polished little book of 172 unputdownable pages.

I had the pleasure of meeting Nell Leyshon herself at the Penguin event. A truly lovely lady with an enviable CV (she was the first woman to be asked to write a play for Shakespeare’s Globe since 1599- no typo!), she describes The Colour of Milk as a love letter to literacy, and to literature. But not in a lame-arsed, highfaluting, inaccessible kind of way. Instead, this is a book that explores how reading and writing sets us free, in the most basic and literal sense. But what’s also interesting is that what gives Mary the chance of a better future will also have an irreversible effect on her life.

Nell Leyshon reads The Colour of Milk at Penguin Bloggers Nighthumans and animals, he said, are quite different.

ain’t that different to me, i said. there’s things they both do that’s the same.

Are we meant to think that ignorance is bliss? Does Mary trade in her ignorance for her innocence? Maybe, but I don’t think that’s the message. Instead, I think the implication is that without the ability to write, to communicate, Mary’s suffering will have been in vain. But with her words and her experiences transformed into the physicality of pen and ink, her story can be told. Finally, she has something important to say – and unlike when she tries to speak back to her father or her employer- her voice will be heard.

and so i shall finish this very last sentence and i will blot my words where the ink gathers in the pools at the end of each letter. 

and then i shall be free. 

Read it now – I think the Tube could always do with a few more weirdos…

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