Written as a memoir of a farm girl in 1831, The Colour of Milk is a stunning series of vignettes that lay the groundwork for a shocking and tragic climax. Other reviewers have called the narrator’s voice “haunting” and I can’t think of a better term for it.
Mary works on a farm and works hard. She was born with a bad leg, she works from dawn to dusk, and she takes frequent beatings from her abusive father. Yet she is happy with who she is and where she is. In one particularly memorable conversation with her invalid grandfather, she says, “sometimes i have to remind my self if i’m sad about summat. other wise i start being happy again.” Her spirit is nearly indomitable and extremely resilient.
But everyone breaks. And when Mary is sent to be a maid and companion to the vicar’s ill wife, she senses her life may never be the same. Even so, she attacks her new duties with the same discipline and work ethic as always. She quickly forms a bond with the “Mrs.” For a time, the vicar is a benevolent warden, though Mary harbors no illusions as to her status in the household. And though she dislikes the vicar’s oversexed son, she manages to tolerate him.
In her writing, Mary repeats certain phrases–her name, the color of her hair, the fact that she’s writing the story with her own hand. We get the sense that she’s got an ironclad grip on her identity and she doesn’t intend to let anyone or any circumstance change who she is. And by the end of the story, we find out just how much her personal autonomy means to her.
You’ll like Mary. She speaks her mind and her bald honesty is refreshing and humorous. The novel is formatted in such a way as to illustrate Mary’s menial writing skills and her straight-forward, almost simple way of speaking. It’s sort of Faulkner-esque with the stream of consciousness narration and unconventional use, or lack, of punctuation. This only enhances the authenticity of the voice.
The Colour of Milk is a short novel. But it is complete. There is nothing missing here. You’ll feel what Mary felt and know who she was and why. Maybe this is a feminist work, critiquing the many ways a woman’s identity can be stolen from her. Maybe it is a humanist work, analyzing the loss of humanity that occurs as people rise higher in social status, or the irreconcilable differences between the classes. Certainly it is a novel that questions the conventional wisdom that education leads to freedom.
In any case, it is a work of art, and one that I highly recommend. It won’t take long to read, but it will hang around with you for a long time after.
A.D. Cole is a homeschooling mother and aspiring romance novelist. She lives in the Ozark foothills and spends her free time reading, writing, baking and pondering life’s little mysteries.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Ecco. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.