Nell Leyshon, The Colour of Milk (2012)
You can read The Colour of Milk in one sitting, and I think doing so is the best way to experience this short, intense work. Set in 1830, it’s the account of Mary, a young farm girl who has acquired a measure of literacy and now sets out her story in her own halting prose. One summer, Mary is sent to work at the local vicarage, looking after the vicar’s sick wife; it’s clear from her tone that something bad has happened, but the full picture doesn’t emerge until the end.
Nell Leyshon paints a portrait of how circumstance can create a prison. It’s the middle of the Industrial Revolution, a time of great change; but that’s happening a long way from Mary’s world in rural Somerset. She’s quick-witted, but not educated; in another time or place, she might have flourished, but Leyshon shows how Mary’s situation conspires against that. Mary’s literacy is a form of release for her – she keeps emphasising that this is her book, her writing, her words – which lends a bittersweet note to the ending of this fine novel.
Beryl Bainbridge, An Awfully Big Adventure (1989)
Annabel’s hosting a Beryl Bainbridge reading week this week; since Bainbridge’s work is one of the gaps in my reading history, I thought I’d join in. But I hope I was just unlucky with the book I chose, because I didn’t get along with An Awfully Big Adventure as well as I hoped to.
It’s Liverpool in 1950, and young Stella Bradshaw, who lives with her aunt and uncle, dreams of a life in the theatre, something that’s not typical of girls with her background (‘People like us don’t go to plays,’ says Aunt Lily, ‘[l]et alone act in them.’ ‘But she’s not one of us, is she?’ replies Uncle Vernon). Stella gets her wish, joining Meredith Potter’s repertory theatre company backstage; she develops an (unreciprocated) crush on Potter himself, and, as the months go by, gains acting work, but also the kind of attention she could do without.
In many ways, An Awfully Big Adventure is Stella’s novel – certainly its resolution hinges on revelations about her character – but, in terms of focus, the book is much more an ensemble piece, and our view of Stella is often distanced (necessarily so, but still). I wonder if these latter qualities didn’t prevent me from truly engaging with Bainbridge’s novel – I felt it was that bit too distanced, too broad, to work for me. But the ending is as powerful as I could wish, one of the strongest narrative jolts I’ve experienced in some time.