Book notes: Nell Leyshon and Beryl Bainbridge

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.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of The Colour of Milk: Prose and Cons Book Club; The Little Reader Library; writingaboutbooks; For Books’ Sake.

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.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of An Awfully Big Adventure: Book Around the Corner; Harriet Devine’s Blog; The Octogon; Jo Wyndham Ward.

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6 Comments

  1. Sorry An Awfully Big Adventure didn’t work for you.

    Thank you for linking to my blog.

    Emma, from Book Around The Corner

  2. Will you try more Bainbridge do you think?

  3. David Hebblethwaite

    22nd June 2012 at 3:55 pm

    Yes, I think I will – but I’d want to take a personal recommendation first.

  4. Hi David, I’m also taking part in the reading week.

    I’d never really tried Bainbridge before and I think you’re right about her style, it’s so stark and distant that it’s definitely an acquired taste. The Dressmaker had an ending that packed a hell of a punch for just a 150 page story but I really struggled with Every Man For Himself – I just couldn’t connect with it at all.

    I have one more book to read this week and then I will be a little relieved to wander off into less chilly territory.

  5. Great to read your thoughts on The Colour of Milk, David, and thanks ever so much for linking to my review of this one. Lindsay

  6. Thanks for the link, David. I LOVED The Colour of Milk, such a powerful little book and Mary’s voice is so incredibly original and compelling. Great read.

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