by Paul Mendez
Adult Contemporary, LGBTQ
In the 1950s, ex-boxer Norman Alonso is a determined and humble Jamaican who has immigrated to Britain with his wife and children to secure a brighter future. Blighted with unexpected illness and racism, Norman and his family are resilient, but are all too aware that their family will need more than just hope to survive in their new country.
At the turn of the millennium, Jesse seeks a fresh start in London, escaping a broken immediate family, a repressive religious community and his depressed hometown in the industrial Black Country. But once he arrives he finds himself at a loss for a new center of gravity, and turns to sex work, music and art to create his own notions of love, masculinity and spirituality.
A wholly original novel as tender as it is visceral, Rainbow Milk is a bold reckoning with race, class, sexuality, freedom and religion across generations, time and cultures.
I already know that by starting this review I will not be able to find the right words to express how much I loved this book and how much it truly meant to me. But Paul Mendez wrote an incredibly tender novel, so I will try my best to give the best review I can.
Rainbow Milk is a beautiful story that follows Jesse, a nineteen-year-old Black, gay ex-Jehovah’s Witness man as he moves to London once he’s stripped of his family and his religious community. He soon becomes a male prostitute as he tries his best to earn his living and find a place in the world, as well as to explore who he is as a person and who he is without the factors that have been pulling him back.
I wish this book didn’t have to end, because that’s how much I loved it. Even writing this review now a few days after I’ve finished the novel, I miss Jesse so much already and miss the incredible prose that Paul Mendez wrote Rainbow Milk with. I’ve never felt so completely entranced by writing before, and it was so clear to me that Mendez has such a gift with words, that each felt so deliberate yet effortless at the same time.
I really resonated with Jesse a lot. Although we don’t share many experiences other than being gay, I recently moved to a new city at the beginning of this year and was able to completely reinvent myself without the boundaries that had been put in place all my life. I’m not saying I had it as hard as Jesse – nowhere near – but I did feel like I was able to draw on some similarities and I think this in particular is why I felt so drawn to him as a character, and so incredibly moved by his tough journey.
I also thought it was so applaudable how well Mendez crafted this story, and by the end how he managed to tie everything together. The story was spread out through different time periods in Jesse’s life – and also began with someone else’s perspective entirely – but it moved so seamlessly from chapter to chapter that I felt so comfortable following from start to finish.
I cannot recommend this novel enough. The brutal yet beautiful honest portrayal of one man’s journey into finding himself, and a tender exploration of what it means to be queer, what it means to be a man, what it means to be Black in contemporary Britain. It made me laugh and it made my cry and it made me appreciate things so much more than I have done before. This is worthy of all the awards and I am already counting down the days until I can read another novel by Paul Mendez. The easiest five star read of my life.