Friday, February 8, 2013

THE COLOUR OF MILK by Nell Leyshon

With her compelling new novel “The Colour Of Milk” Nell Leyshon has given us Mary who has a voice that cannot be silenced or forgotten.  Mary is a fourteen-year-old farm girl who lives in 1831 and promised herself that she would “write the truth and the things that happened.”  That she does for Mary is an honest girl, headstrong, determined with hair the color of milk and a game leg.

She lives on a hardscrabble farm with her parents and three sisters.  The girls are forced to do exhausting work from dawn to dark with no thanks save a cuff around the head from their  father.  When the local vicar offers to pay him for the services of one of his girls he promptly sends Mary to live at the vicarage.  She arrives with all of her belongings - the dress she wore, a shawl and an apron.

Although within walking distance of the farm to Mary it is as if she has gone to a foreign land.  She even finds a bed she doesn’t have to share complete with sheets and a cushion for her head.  Mary misses home desperately despite its poverty and the abuse she sometimes suffered.  Edna, the maid,  resents and ridicules her, but Vicar Graham’s frail wife takes to her immediately and enjoys her company.  Their son, Ralph, soon leaves for Oxford.

When Mrs. Graham dies the vicar dismisses Edna, saying there is no longer a need for two to work in the house.  When Mary asks to go home the vicar says she is still needed and she realizes that as long as the vicar pays her father this is where she will stay.

“The Colour Of Milk” is a slim volume yet filled with hope, anticipation.  As Mary continues her story her voice becomes more urgent carrying the reader along to a startling but perhaps inevitable conclusion.  Sparely written, imaginatively conceived Nell Leyshon has given us a miniature literary masterpiece.

Highly recommended.

- Gail Cooke

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