Updated: Jun 7
Rating - 9/10
First and foremost, I would love to thank my dear friend Nicole, a fellow bibliophile (Check out her Podcast - Shelf Life) for sending me this INCREDIBLE read all the way from the U.K. Rainbow Milk was published in the UK through the amazing Dialogue Books publishers. Soon as it arrived I had to jump this book to the top of my to read list. How beautiful is the book cover you guys?! I’m in love. In love. It also happens to be Pride Month!! What a fitting book to kick off this amazing celebration with. Although there is a lot of heaviness in the media and rightly so, happening in the world right now, it is still important to remember how far we have come for LGBTQ+ rights. OK, let’s get on with the plot and review shall we? :)
Rainbow Milk is an inter-sectional coming-of-age story that follows a nineteen year old named Jesse McCarthy as he struggles with his racial, and sexual identity against the backdrop of the legacies of the epic Windrush Generation, and a Jehovah’s Witness upbringing. In the 1950s in the Black Country, Norman Alonso, who is a driven and humble Jamaican, moves to Britain with his loving wife to secure a better future for himself and his children. As they are of the black race in a not so diverse community, Norman is faced with intense racism and an unforeseen unexpected illness. Norman and his wife struggle greatly to try and survive this massive change and many difficulties. They realize they need much more than hope to survive.
Through the turn of the millennium, we follow Jesse as he seeks out a fresh start in London. Jesse escaped a highly repressed and religious community, a broken family and his desolate home town in the Black Country. While in London, he finds himself quite lost in finding where he fits in and how to ground himself, and as a result, Jesse turns to sex work as a transition to finding new notions of love, spirituality and fatherhood.
What a powerful debut from Paul Mendez. This book definitely packs a bold punch to say the least. Let’s start off with the story of Norman Alonso. First off, I personally enjoyed the way Mendez wrote this section of the book in a legit Jamaican accent. It made for a more intimate telling of Norman's point of view of his story. Let's talk about the Windrush Generation real quick. Back in the late 1940s to the 1970s encouraged by a newspaper Ad, nearly half a million Caribbeans moved from their home countries to Britain, the country they had fought for in the 2nd World War in the hope of finding employment and a fresh start. They gained immediate residence and settlement. They were then referred to as the Windrush Generation, they faced major racial discrimination, violence, social and economic exclusion even though they fought in WW2 and were British residents, they were normally denied employment and accommodation due to the color of their skin. In the 60s & 70s, the UK government passed stricter rules on immigration but allowed the commonwealth citizens already in the country permanent residence in the UK. It’s worth reading up on this btw! As you can imagine, given my brief history lesson on the Windrush Generation, you can only begin to imagine what Norman Alonso and his family went through during their immigration to Britain, to then face extreme racism, lack of resources, respect and the difficulties they faced while trying to raise their children. The area they moved to was referred to as the Black Country, an area in the West Midlands of England where there were thousands of iron-working foundries, coal mines, steel mills, and was basically the industrial center of Britain. The area got it’s famous name due to large amounts of surfaces being covered in black soot from the coal used in factories at the time. Imagine arriving from your beautiful Caribbean country and trying to make a fresh start in a heavily polluted location. I loved that they showed this part of history in the book through the eyes of Norman and his humble family.
Later on in the turn of the millennium, we follow Jesse through his teenage years to adulthood. I LOVED Jesse’s story. The immense difficulties that he went through were heavy for the heart to bear. Jesse is a fun, hip and bloody cool person who struggles with a lot in his life. His complex relationship with his family and upbringing was one of the most riveting stories I’ve read in a while. Especially given that he was raised as a faith loving Jehovah's Witness, one can only imagine what that is like, and then to later discover that you are gay. Without giving too much away, I honestly lived for his time in London. I was completely invested in Jesse’s story when he made the big move to the Big Smoke. I truly adored this part of the book so much. It brought back all my fond memories of London, especially because I used to walk all over central London and Soho in particular. All these areas are very close to my heart and I was right there with him during his self discovery. Jesse’s story is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. He takes us on an incredible journey through his life as well as finding his own spirituality, and a somewhat peace to his identity. The new family he has surrounded himself with accepts him for who he is, and the man that he has become. I still believe that Jesse, till the very end of this book, struggles with his identification as a black man, and to see how this complex journey plays out in this profound book was an enormous gift. I also adored the connection between the two stories of Norman Alonso and Jesse McCarthy.
I fell in love with his self exploration and his daring sexual experiences. As well as his vibrant personality, his incredible friends and lovers, the very important and racial issues that he faces as a young, British, black gay man, and the freaking awesome music references he makes during the entire book! Including, Mary J. Blige, Biggie, Jay Z, Joy Division, Wham, Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill, Sugababes, Blur, the list goes on. Big shout out to the Knowles sisters, Lemonade and A Seat at the Table are still one of my favorite albums. Had to give a shout out as I myself, am a huge music lover.
This is a relevant courageous read, and very true to the times we are still living in today. Racial injustice and LGBTQ+ rights are very much an ongoing issue. The difficulties black people and gay/transgender people faced in the past are still going on to this very day! All you have to do is just put on the news and open your eyes to what is going on around you. I felt his pain, and I understood where he was coming from as a black person myself. Rainbow Milk is a fearless exploration of race, religion across many generations, social injustice, sexuality, spirituality and freedom.
This is a necessary Queer Fiction read, whether you are straight, Bi, gay, white, black purple, blue, just read it! It's awesome. I will remember this story for years to come.
There were some insane quotes in Paul Mendez’s Book. It was difficult narrowing down my favorites, but here are a select few to get your juices flowing.
Page 36 | Norman Alonso speaking about his struggles in the workplace and his place in society.
“What the workmate can’t understand, is that I am a Jamaican. I am a Jamaican man, and therefore, a British man. I did born British, so will be a British man all my life. We serve the Queen, and therefore her, the King, in the same way. Anytime you walk down the mainstreet in downtown Kingston you can hear one marching band play ‘God Save the Queen’. We fight for we country. We help build this country. We help make rich this country. Without we, they may not have been such a big army, such a big navy. They might not have been able to conquer the world. Might be they lose the war against Hitler.”
“It’s not your fault, you know. It’s because you’ve been taught that God is a white man, and that white men are the earthly embodiment of God. You've been taught to worship white men and to hold everything that they represent, everything they own, as the dearest, most important, most sacred thing in your life. That’s why you love their smiles, their skin, their beauty, their voices, their words, their sex. You’ve been trained to hate yourself and love and desire them.”
Page 330 | Jesse speaks about his boyfriend Owen being white, and racial injustice
“There is nothing he can do about being white, but he knows he has to be absolutely aware of his privileges at all times. He knows he is part of a group that has to give up some of his privileges, and he knows that having the choice to be able to give up some of his privileges is also a privilege. I mean, he recently turned down a Head of Department job at his university and nominated someone else highly qualified who is a woman of color, and she got the job, which was as much as he could have done for her, because he understands it’s about voices being heard in the right places...I had this Tumblr account that I had to delete. I was following all these Black Lives Matter blogs, all these African American History blogs, and the stuff I was learning was the real truth. From top to bottom. How white people have turned everything to their favor. How they have written and rewritten and reedited history to put themselves in the place of God, using the bible…”
‘When there isn’t even a single white person in the Bible!’ “Jesse, who grew up being suffocated with the Bible as if it was a pair of Y-Fronts, had never thought of that…
But I just got so caught up in all these blogs and all this discussion, and it explained exactly why my life was the way it was, exactly why my mother was such a bitch to me, exactly why she was such a bitch full stop, exactly why Trayvon Martin died and the killer got away with it, exactly why Stephen Laurence got murdered and my dad, my white adoptive dad, said, Oh Well, he must’ve done summat to piss ‘em off, exactly why it’s taken twenty fucking years to bring those callous motherfuckers to justice, exactly why black people get overlooked for a white person for most jobs, exactly why the prisons are full of black people who get punished ten times harder than a white person. White supremacy permeates every aspect of our society…I knew that my ancestors, albeit in a different part of the world, went through something similar, and I realized what a fucking miracle it was that I could be alive because, white fucking men, not God, had decided who worked where and who fucking bred with who and my line survived.”
Page 103 | Jesse’s thoughts on himself
“He recognized that he thought of himself as a blond white boy all his life. He’d never thought of himself as a black boy, or compared himself to other black people. He’d known so few black people, and those his mother knew she often derided for being too black, doing things in too black a way, being late because they were too black, being disorganized because they were too black, being rough and uneducated because they were too black. He wouldn’t have been treated so harshly if he wasn’t too black. He wouldn’t be cooped up in a prison cell, an exile within the family home, too embarrassed to accept any of his workmates’ invitations to spend Christmas with them and their families, if he wasn’t too black. He knew he would have to spend the rest of his life convincing people that he wasn’t too black.”
The music part of my review was very difficult because Paul Mendez mentions a lot of incredible songs in this book! So many other songs would have incredibly worked well for this book. My chosen theme song to compliment this book for me, would be: Love Will Set You Free by Starchaser - I wanted to choose a song that captures the vibe of any gay club scene in London where young men or women go to find their own sense of peace and freedom in their world, as well as Jesse’s bold and youthful journey into the London gay nightlife. Also, who doesn’t love a good soulful funky house track! Happy Pride Month!!
Genre: Queer Fiction, Coming-of-Age, LGBT Literature, Historical Fiction
Originally Published: March 19, 2020