The Colour of Milk

Nell Leyshon

Published by Fig Tree 31 May 2012 

176pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

Clarrie Grundy meets Tess Durbeyfield in Nell Leyshon’s latest work of fiction, a novella/monologue voiced entirely in the lower case by an abused farm girl who has been newly introduced to literacy: ‘this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand,’ it starts.

Despite the blisters, beatings and endless work, fifteen-year-old Mary, hampered by a twisted leg, is no one’s fool. She speaks as she finds and she finds life at home – where her father treats all four daughters as well as his wife as indentured labour – hard.

Later, sent to work as a maid at the village vicarage, Mary’s tasks become, at least initially, a little easier to bear, but her tongue is no less sharp and her vision of Ralph Graham, the vicar’s son with the roving eye, no less beady.

This pithy account of working women’s miserable lot in the 1830s is leavened by glimpses of the tender and comic sides to Mary although there is no real escape from her cramped, ultimately violated situation.

Mary’s is a hard, short road to adulthood. Leyshon’s pastoral cautionary tale may have echoes of other, more classic work in similar terrain, but its economy, simple but elemental powers of evocation and the immediacy of Mary’s voice give it the bright, brief intensity of a buttercup.

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