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There’s something about Mary

23 June 2012

6:00 AM

23 June 2012

6:00 AM

The Colour of Milk Nell Leyshon

Penguin Fig Tree, pp.171, £12.99

I like books which have their own linguistic microclimate. Fictional first-person narratives are where you tend to find these.  The moment you step inside a good one, you enter a distinctive country as encountered by the narrator, using his or her limited vocabulary. It’s the very constrictedness of the vocabulary that makes the story gripping: it forces you to live inside the narrator’s mind. Blinkered fictional characters created by unblinkered authors can make for surprisingly illuminating books.  

How about this for a microclimate to step into?

this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand. in this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am reached the age of fifteen and i am sitting by my window and i can see many things. i can see birds and they fill the sky with their cries.i can see the trees and i can see the leaves.

They are the opening sentences of The Colour of Milk, and you find yourself reading on. A clever ploy, those small ‘i’s, dreamed up by the author and playwright, Nell Leyshon, who smiles out at you from her jacketphotograph in her very 2012 black jumper. She lives in Glastonbury. Who is this character she has created who does not use capitals? 

She is called mary. Her world is the warm cow’s side as she milks it, the tin bucket, the hens, the home field, her shawl, her sisters, her mother, and her father who inflicts casual violence on his daughters if they don’t work hard enough. You are quickly divested of any nostalgic yearnings about the ‘countryside’ in the ‘olden days’. The life of mary, and her sisters violet, hope and beatrice, is one of pure drudgery, the kind that goes on 365 days a year for your entire life.  


Yet mary knows no other life; and as you read her narrative you, too, for the very brief span of this short book, also know no other life. The world shrinks to farmhouse, field, seasons, cows and sisters. It is a world without quotation marks: the sisters say things like come on, we got cows to milk and we’d better get back down, father’ll be awake and looking for us all, and, you know i never. This has a comic effect, reminiscent of the similarly speech-mark-free The Young Visiters.

Is the non-use of capitals and quotation marks just a jot too easy? I’m suspicious of a novel that is over-dependent on a gimmick. But I have to admit, it works: a simple method of capturing the artlessness of the narrator. The book would certainly be duller and less immediate if there were capitals and quotation marks.

There is no mention of any landlord, or town, or even village. But there is a church and a vicarage, and it is to this vicarage that young mary is without warning sent by her father, to live and work. The vicarage is half a mile away, but it might as well be the other side of the moon:

my new bed did seem as big as the three acre field with only me in it.

Will life be any better for mary here? She’ll have escaped violence and drudgery, but what will she have to put up with instead?

The narrative is so direct, so guileless, that the reader feels completely drawn in, as homesick as mary herself for the known world of her farmhouse. Horrible things as well as good things happen in the vicarage. In fact, both become mutually dependent in a terrifying way. The outcome is appalling. The story is shocking and haunting, turning suddenly and violently dark. As mary writes at the very end:

and now i am done and there is no more to tell you.  

There is, in fact, a great deal more to tell you, but I mustn’t give the story away. Read it, in one sitting.  


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