Thursday, 30 July 2020

Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:


Paul Mendez’s powerful debut Rainbow Milk is fiction, but it draws closely on Mendez’s own life. Indeed, the book began as a life writing exercise before he was persuaded to turn it into fiction.

Jesse has been brought up by his black mother and white stepfather in a strict Jehovah’s Witness community in Swan Village in the West Midlands. Outwardly, he is the perfect Brother, “the darling boy of the congregation, baptised, about to become a ministerial servant, halfway to elderdom, at nineteen.” Inwardly, he is struggling with his sexuality and with his mother’s emotional rejection.

When he is abruptly dis-fellowshipped and consequently ostracised by his family and the Witness community, Jesse escapes to London to lose himself in a mixture of drugs, sex work and the occasional bout of waitering.

Most of Jesse’s clients use him or abuse him, and immediately forget him, but others, like Derrick “rescued him by giving him the space to feel like a normal human being.” And then there is Owen, his newly-divorced gay flatmate, with whom he shares what could have been a bleak and lonely Christmas Day.

The novel is rich in musical references. Many of the scene are scored with music from Joy Division, Mary J Blige, Massive Attack, Public Image Limited...

“He closed his eyes and allowed the music to print images on the back of his eyelids. Derelict foundries; shopping trolleys in the algae covered canals, the gas tank; the disused railways lines choked with stinging nettles, a dustbin for screwed-up, spunked-in porn...”


Mendez’s descriptions of sex work can be brutal and shocking. But he is equally good at conveying moments of profound tenderness. He is adept too at conveying the intensity of a crowded restaurant service – the demands of the customers, the petty jealousies of the staff, the things that go wrong and the fleeting connections.

Rainbow Milk opens, though, with a young West Indian couple arriving in England’s industrial Black Country in the 1950s. It shows the poverty and prejudice they faces, but also the tenderness of a father to his young children and his tentative but growing relationship with his white neighbour. For most of the book, this section appears to stand alone, before it’s woven back into Jesse’s story towards the end.

Until recently, the lives of Black gay men have often been all-but invisible With films like Moonlight, television programmes like I May Destroy You and books like Dean Atta's The Black Flamingo, that is starting to change. Rainbow Milk is a deeply moving addition. It's the story of an exceptional journey – out of one world and into another, and from rejection and intolerance to acceptance and love. Parts of it are hard to read but it is ultimately brimming of hope and vibrant with life.

Listen to Paul Mendez talking to Okechukwe Nzelu, author of The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, on the Cabin Fever podcast, as they discuss writing, their different backgrounds and their experiences as Black gay men in Britain.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

Avoid If You Dislike: Graphic depictions of sexual activity.

Perfect Accompaniment: ‘Disorder’ by Joy Division

Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQIA+

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