Rainbow Milk: A Novel
This is a unique novel that is compelling, engrossing, and full of suspense and surprise. Reading it is like listening to a good raconteur or public speaker who commands an audience and mesmerizes them into listening to their outpourings from start to finish. It is sometimes only after the person stops speaking and the allure of their command has worn off that an examination of what was said is mulled over. The flaws in the story or speech become obvious, as do the inconsistencies and exaggerations. But the conclusion might still be that it was worth listening to. Readers of Rainbow Milk may conclude similar thoughts and rate it overall as a good novel but consider it not without its foibles.
The story starts in 2002 when 19-year-old Jesse McCarthy is disfellowshipped as a Jehovah Witness when his homosexuality is discovered. His mother was unloving toward him. She suffered from depression and refused to reveal the identity of his father. Jesse grows up with a white stepfather who is downright boring.
Rejected by his family and religious community, he decides to quit his job at McDonald’s, leave his dreary Midlands hometown and move to London to start a new life. He is determined to shake off the hold his religion had over him. He is also keen to lose his virginity and doesn’t waste any time in having sex in the train station toilets before he commences his journey to London.
Although sexually inexperienced until that point, Jesse takes to sex like a fish to water. Jesse soon discovers that sex is an emotional release that helps him forget his repressed past, and rather than seek love and friendship in a regular boyfriend, he chooses instead to become a sex worker. His story is full of sexual experiences devoid of love, tenderness, sensuality, or commitment. Sex pays his wages, and he continues this line of work until an incident prompts him to rethink his career path.
This is a very fast-paced novel. The narrative of the story is told in such a way that readers get a glimpse of Jesse’s new life in London for a few weeks after he arrives there in May 2002 (full of sexual adventures) before fast-forwarding to seven months later (and more sexual adventures). Then, with alarming speed, the story moves to almost 14 years later to August 2016 (and fewer sexual adventures) before backtracking.
This patchy timeframe will not deter readers from noticing Jesse’s inferiority complex about his ethnicity. He seems to unduly mull over people’s prejudices or perceived feelings toward him; whenever a white person glances sideways at him he considers them racist. This isn’t helped by Jesse not having any gay Black friends to confide in, which means he internalizes his experiences. Had he built up a strong network of friends they might have helped him make sense of his world. He might even find self-acceptance, which seems to notably absent in his life. Perhaps this struggle to find happiness lies in his battles with his religious past, coupled with recurring thoughts of his unhappy childhood, and his quest to find out about his birth father.
Jesse eventually settles down with an older white man named Owen Gunning, who is bisexual and sex hungry, but they seem content together. While the relationship provides Jesse with some sexual security, their partnership is not socially equal. Owen is an academic who writes poetry. His friends are affluent professionals. Jesse (who at this stage is in his early thirties) continues to work as a waiter. Sex, though, can be a great equalizer, and in Jesse’s case he makes it abundantly clear that he has the physical means and expertise to satisfy the most insatiable of men. Reading between the lines, bedtime in the McCarthy and Gunning household is rarely uneventful.
Jesse’s story is enticing, but without his sexual prowess and the candid descriptions of his sexual experiences, his character could easily have been perceived as dull and lacking in substance. Rainbow Milk also contains some significant flaws. The novel begins with four chapters about Jesse’s grandparents, who were part of the Windrush generation migrating from Jamaica to the UK in the late 1950s but ends without any real conclusion. It’s written in patois, which makes reading difficult, and its relevance (at best) merely provides background information about Jesse’s grandparents and the struggles of their time—as opposed to having relevance to the main storyline i.e., growing up as a gay black British man in the 2000s.
Jesse’s story is saturated with music information and the dissecting of songs by various artists—particularly the Sugababes, Mary J. Blige, and Destiny’s Child—which are often used as padding, but their overuse becomes boring. However, it could have been worse. Had Jesse been born a generation or two earlier, readers would have been exposed to a full analysis of songs by Gloria Gaynor, The Village People, and Barry Manilow in Jesse’s pursuit to find hidden meaning in the lyrics.
What readers may also find tedious is the excessive highlighting of pronunciation in some regional accents. Say, for example, if somebody is from the town of Dudley—they come from “Dudlaaaay.” And if Jesse needs to do something he kept putting off, a person from Dudley would advise him “ain’t good puttin off, ya berra do it tomorra.” What might have been intended as light-hearted entertainment sometimes sounds like snobbery. Having said that, Jesse does come across as being arrogant at times.
Despite Jesse’s ponderings on racism and prejudices toward men of color, he avoids mentioning the entrenched homophobia of the UK’s Black Caribbean community, only referring once to being called a “battiboy” by another Black man who mutters this under his breath during a trip to Brixton.
Regardless of these criticisms, however, Rainbow Milk remains a good novel; it could have been brilliant had an astute editor given better advice and guidance on plotting and structure. That said, Mendes is a gifted writer who will go on to win a major literary award at some point in his career.