I have at last got round to a book I highlighted in my annual “What I Should Have Read” post back at the end of 2020. Excellent reviews on publication and fulsome praise by Bernardine Evaristo on the teatime Richard & Judy Bookclub during lockdown had me eagerly anticipating and I bought the paperback the day it was published. That was February 2021 and inexplicably it just stayed on the shelf. I was beginning to think it might not live up to my long-held expectations and that may have been the reason I was choosing other titles. The recent series of BBC’s book show “Between The Covers” saw more praise from author and comedian Deborah Frances-White who described it as “so beautiful, so literary” when selecting it as her favourite book pick. This made me realise I had procrastinated for too long.
I knew the outline for this book, Jesse, a young black male from the Midlands who has grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness is disfellowshipped because of rumours about his sexuality and flees to London and becomes a sex worker. I knew it would be edgy, explicit, and that debut author Paul Mendez enjoyed proclamations that an important new British voice had arrived with his writing which was said to have a strong autobiographical element.
This only goes someway. It actually begins in the 1950s with recent immigrants Norman and Claudette and their two small children discovering the British dream they’d been tempted by wasn’t quite true and with Norman becoming unwell Charlotte was having to hold down two jobs while he looked after the children. Jesse’s story begins 50 pages in and it is not clear for a considerable time how the two strands connect.
Despite Deborah Frances-White’s TV recommendation I was still surprised by how well rounded and literary this debut is. It increasingly reminded me of the best work of Booker Prize winning Alan Hollinghurst. Yes, it is explicit and I hope that the details of how the young Jesse makes his money to survive in London will not deter readers because this is just one element of a story which amazingly given the subject matter is full of hope and life-affirming.
Mendez handles language very well and there is a multi-sensory richness to his work. He uses two potential pitfalls well. He’s not afraid of dialect, especially in the early scenes where Jamaica meets Black Country. At one point a French character is introduced and whilst reading a lengthy explanation from her I wondered if Mendez was just pushing this a little too far but her role in the novel is brief. The other thing which he does well which is not always a success in fiction is rooting in its time through the use of many music references. The sound of the Sugababes, turn of the Millennium R&B and hiphop and earlier bands such as Joy Division permeate and enhance this novel. This is a very strong, confident debut and I hope that given the two years since publication that Paul Mendez will soon be ready with something else to further boost his reputation.
Rainbow Milk was published in 2020 by Dialogue Books