A debut novel. A bloomin’ debut. Such power and emotion in his first book. Take a bow Paul Mendez.
Now. Be warned.
It is a bit rude in places. Ok, it’s pretty feckin’ graphic. Those of a sensitive nature might find their eyes watering in the early stages. The full force created by the urges of the young man at the centre of this story are quite openly exposed. Mendez writes with an ferocious passion. The story deserves every bit of the raw sex which sets the scene early in the book.
Before that though, the book begins 50 years earlier with a young Jamaican couple (from the Windrush generation) struggling to come to terms with their decision to move from the Caribbean Island to the Midlands of England. They are, of course, linked to the story which follows. This sets a bleak backdrop of racism and forgotten dreams and gives context to the rest of the book.
Jesse, a young black man, brought up a Jehovah’s Witness, finds his life in the Black Country capitulating and ends up fleeing to London where he finds he can use his youthful black body for financial gain. His journey to this point is delivered with a series of necessarily blunt blows within the narration. A white step father is kept from getting close to Jesse by a mother who shows nothing but resentment and disappointment towards her son.
I believe Rainbow Milk is closely personal to Mendez and his delivery of both the rough physical moments, the heart-breaking cries for help as well as Jesse’s many cringe worthy and naïve moments is so exquisitely poised. And the issues at play are voiced with such force that I struggled to get my head around this being a debut!
The crushing isolation felt by Jesse as he becomes increasingly desperate to express himself both emotionally and physically leads to him mistakenly seeking sexual attention from a fellow young Witness. This leads to his removal from the Jehovah’s Witness fellowship and cements the estrangement from his mother and step father. It also sets the scene for him fleeing to London.
He suffers at the hands of some of the men he encounters but also finds the sexual joy he imagined with others. Amongst the one night stands, quick and quickly forgotten fucks in toilet cubicles, gradually a love story unfolds. After a particularly rough customer, Jesse finds himself needing to quickly understand the risks still at play of AIDS.
The drinking, the drugs and the debauchery are just as full on as the sex, until a near tragedy slowly brings him together with a man, Owen, who seems to truly love him. Paul Mendez gives us hope amongst the chaos and is maybe saying there is a way to navigate this life if we have faith in ourselves. Jesse battles an abusive childhood, religious oppression, relentless racism and homophobia as well as rejection, loneliness and terrifying health scares.
The musical references are fabulous, Jesse finding solace and motivation in some of the great R’nB and soul greats, as well as cutting edge contemporary artists. Through Owen, the man who he falls in love with, he discovers the music of Joy Division and Public Image Limited and finds himself deeply entranced (helped by the drug use naturally) by some of the sounds from my era!
Mendez had me rooting for Jesse throughout and plenty of tears were shed along the way.
A riveting, heart wrenching and ferocious read which manages to caress the senses as well as battering them.
I’m saying nothing more, you’ll have to read it to find out for yourselves!
PS: The title isn’t referring to what I thought it was….