Nell Leyshon is a master of deception. A short story writer, Orange long-listed author, and playwright, she relates powerful, uncomfortable themes through strong voices that tell simple, profound stories. In her 2009 novel, Devotion, siblings Tilly and Grace recounted the devastating effects of a crumbling marriage from their child’s-eye view. In The Colour of Milk, her third novel, Leyshon returns to a naïve perspective to expose the forces that shape a child’s imagination.
this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.
in this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am
reached the age of fifteen and i am sitting by my window and
i can see many things. i can see birds and they fill the sky with
their cries. i can see the trees and i can see the leaves.
and each leaf has veins which run down it.
and the bark of each tree has cracks.
i am not very tall and my hair is the colour of milk.
my name is mary and i have learned to spell it. m. a. r. y.
that is how you letter it.
Mary is the spirited youngest girl of four children—Hope, Beatrice, and Violet—who live on a farm midst the turmoil of enclosures and the industrial revolution. Their violent father is “digging up the blackthorn hedge between the ten acre and the five acre” to bring in machinery: “cos it’s faster. faster than if you were sons and done it. and doing it fast means more money.” Mary’s testament tells how her father sends her or sells her into work at the vicarage, where she swaps a life of picking up stones and trying to evade her father’s cruelty for one of putting tops onto pies and caring for the vicar’s sickly wife.
The story is not uncommon. The Colour of Milk has been compared to Atwood’s Alias Grace and The Color Purple, and “Bronte-esque” has been used to convey the rural, historical background. I’m not sure that these comparisons are helpful in capturing Leyshon’s stirring tale of manipulation and corruption in the nineteenth-century English countryside. The Colour of Milk is rich in natural descriptions told simply: “i opened the door of the house where the hens lived and the cock came out first and he was marching to music though there was none”. The realist tale is steeped in a mythic atmosphere dripping with symbolism. It is stark and at the same time fairy-tale-esque that Mary’s grandfather sleeps between the apple boxes, old and redundant, cast off as “lazy” by his son and daughter-in-law. Mary writes herself into history but by drawing us into her story, Leyshon tricks us into thinking that this is a traditional tale. It is unique. ‘My hair is the colour of milk’, the balladic refrain that permeates the story, immerses us in Mary’s world, and the significance of the simple, descriptive phrasing becomes clear in the unfolding horror.
The story moves slowly in time with the seasons, from spring 1830 to spring 1831, keeping time with Mary’s growing confidence in her penmanship and ability to record what happened and why. Mary is at the early stages of writing; she hasn’t yet learned to “letter” capitals or speech marks. How she became literate is at the heart of the story and it’s therefore right and also ingenious that her maturity is conveyed both in the typeface and also in the typography, which reflects or enacts her literacy.
The vicarage within sight of the farm opens a completely different world to Mary. She learns what a pillow is and receives new boots and new clothes to add to her only set and sleeps alone in her own bed for the first time. She learns too, though, with shocking consequences, that this world is filled with the same desires and temptations as the old one. Out of apples and snakes, Leyshon creates a compelling, unforgettable story.
look at the shape. you need to
remember it is like a snake. ssssss. start with the pen at the top.
i dipped the pen in the ink and i started at the top and the
line curved and there it was. s.