Review: Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez

Rainbow Milk begins on a summer day in 1959 in the UK’s Black Country. It is black, not because it is a utopia of Caribbean migrants as some of those same migrants hope, but because of industrial pollution. “The building black. The sky black. The people black and not because they come from where we come from. The dog black. The bird black. Everywhere we look the ground open and something in the middle of demolish.” Norman Alonso, a Jamaican gardener recently immigrated, minds his two young children, Robert and Glorie. He’s going blind and can no longer work; his wife Claudette supports the family in two jobs. Over the day he reflects on how he came to England, the opportunity they expected and the racist drudgery that greeted them. “We leave the Garden of Eden for the Land of Milk and Honey and find Sodom and Gomorrah,” he says.

The novel leaps forward to 2002. Jesse McCarthy, a 20-year-old black kid, is on his way to a paid hookup in London. The narrative loops back to a year earlier (you’ve got to keep your eye on the dates that title each section), to when Jesse is still living with his family in the Black Country. His mother Val became a Jehovah’s Witness when she married Jesse’s white stepfather Graham. Jesse is “the darling of the congregation”, but in the days following the September 11 attacks, when it seems like the long-foretold Armageddon is finally arriving, he comes to several moments of revelation. Hanging out with a young man who isn’t in “the truth”, Jesse discovers Jay-Z’s Blueprint, and fantasises about a life lived openly with another man. Disfellowshipped by the congregation, he runs away to London to become sex worker. If he can’t be saved, he might as well enjoy himself and the sins of sex, drugs and RnB of millennial, millenarian, London.

Stretching from the 1950s to 2016, I found the the narrative uneven at times. At its best – a part that takes place on Christmas Day in 2002, in the rage and hope of Norman, or Jesse’s success in life and love in the 2010s – it is exhilarating and propulsive. At other times, particularly in Jesse’s early days in London when he is struggling to find his feet, I found it sagging a little. The big narrative question of the novel is the relationship of its first part to Jesse’s life, a question that is ultimately resolved in a moving conclusion that reminded me of Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Like Evaristo’s novel, Rainbow Milk is a story of black Britain and its intersections with class, gender and sexuality. I felt deeply for each of the characters, even when Mendez sometimes uses them as ciphers for lessons in racial and queer politics. It’s queer to its bones, with many scenes of explicit gay sex and gay characters.

With sections titled for the neighbourhoods where they take place, and in its depiction of working class life, Rainbow Milk also reminded me a lot of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain. They share an unaffected approach to sentences, use of vernacular and a dedication to pop culture. Jesse’s relationship to his mother Val is even more fraught than Shuggie’s to his alcoholic mother Agnes. Val resents Jesse to the point of hatred, perhaps because he reminds her too much of his biological father, whose unstated presence hangs heavily over the book. The vomit-inducing breakfast of off milk and Fruit Loops provides the “rainbow milk” of the book’s title, his relationship to his mother, and in turn his blackness, made literal.

At its heart, Rainbow Milk is an intersectional history of the UK, from post-WWII migration in the 1950s, to the Brexit populism of the late 2010s, with Donald Trump’s presidential win looming in the near future. The more things change, the more they stay the same, this generational view of history suggests. Norman has “Keep England White” painted on his front door; double-deckers drive past Jesse with the poverty-stricken migrant hordes of the Leave campaign’s marketing. Rainbow Milk investigates the warped thinking this politics requires of its thinkers. Norman’s brother fought and died for Britain in the war, yet, as Norman says “We feel like foreigner, not citizen”.

Rainbow Milk is a compelling depiction of the effects of racism, particularly on the body. Jesse is at once loathed for his dark skin and the threat this suggests to white people, and desired for the same. Realising being raised by a white father has taught him to to hate his blackness, the objectification he experiences through sex work is in part a way to reclaim it, to enjoy the thing he has been taught to hate. Throughout the novel he wrestles with how to align his inner and outer experience, something that may remain unresolved until white supremacy is dismantled. Towards the end Jesse finds common ground over white men with a friend’s Lebanese husband, Jean-Alain. “They make us fall in love with them and subjugate ourselves to their legend,” Jean-Alain rages, “but they will never allow us to share in that unless it suits them, unless it massages their salvation. We will always be something other, something inferior”.

The writing is mostly unadorned, the accents spelled out phonetically, effective at conveying the babble of backgrounds in 20th century UK. Mendez tells much of the story by gathering details – songs, art, literature. A schoolmate of Jesse’s is called Aidan, “born in 1981 when his parents could not have predicted his peers would call him AIDS for short,” a tiny, sentence-length story in its own right. In one of the more inventive scenes Mendez narrates an entire shift at Jesse’s workplace through dialogue. It’s a thrilling moment that demonstrates the endurance feat of those who work in the hospitality industry, as well as Jesse’s skill as a waiter. I found most powerful though the writing where Mendez lays the politics and emotions bare on the page, such as when Jesse confronts his sexuality, rejection and mortality in a moment of catharsis on Christmas Night:

Jesse had often wondered, when he was a child, what Armageddon would be like, and hoped that he would sleep so deeply he would wake up only when it was over …. There would be nothing anyone could do about it; Armageddon would be beyond the control of any human being or organisation. No Richter scale would survive to tell the tale. Nothing could stop God’s work if indeed it was God’s work. Whatever happened now, it was too late. He was going to die. You’re gonna die at Armageddon.

Rainbow Milk is tale of personal apocalypse, but it also about building a new life from the ashes.

Gay rating: 5/5 for gay characters, themes and explicit gay sex.

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