The first section of the story describes the journey of a Jamaican couple, part of the Windrush generation, who decide to move to England and settle in a Midlands town. Upon arrival into the UK, Gardener, Normon, and his pregnant wife, Claudette, are shocked by the racism they face from their neighbours and by the Black Country’s high levels of pollution, which is world’s away from the quaint and idyllic Britain they were expecting. To make matters worse, Claudette is forced to work two jobs as Norman’s failing eyesight prevents him from working. This chapter prefaces many of the struggles Jesse, their grandson, faces as a Black, gay man from the Midlands navigating his new life in London.
I appreciated that Rainbow Milk is a Black British story about someone not from London. The first part of Jesse’s journey begins in 2002, when our protagonist Jesse, has been disfellowshipped from his tight-knit Jehovah’s Witness community in Wolverhampton, and flees to London to start a new life for himself. We follow Jesse from his early twenties to his mid thirties, in which time he works as a sex worker and a waiter, has a lot of sex and works through some of the feelings he never confronted as a child coming from a broken home. Rainbow Milk can definitely be classified as a character-driven narrative because while there isn’t a lot that happens in the book, everything that does take place has a profound impact on how Jesse acts and views the world around him. I find it hard to believe that anyone reading this book could dislike Jesse - Mendez did a fantastic job at writing a believable, yet still very likeable protagonist.
In Rainbow Milk, Mendez writes about a young Black man who simultaneously resents older white men and is attracted to them. Having grown up in an area with a white majority population and in a congregation where the elders are all white men, Jesse is attracted to these men who, to him, represent power and an unattainable ideal. Somewhat disturbing is how he sees his emotionally-distant step-father, Graham, and Brother Thomas-Woodall, the congregation’s overseer, in the men he chooses to sleep with. This, of course, can be seen as a reaction to Jesse’s unusual upbringing and from only seeing white men in positions of authority. In consequence, Jesse’s sexual performance often becomes confused with a performance of Blackness and playing up to fantasies of the racialised other.
Throughout the novel music is a major theme in conveying certain intimacies of private moments. Jesse makes reference to childhood memories of his mother listening to Destiny’s Child in their family home. Amongst the few possessions he chooses to leave home with, there are 10 CD’s and his discman - only taking the absolute essentials. There’s a standout scene in the book where Jesse and his housemate spend Christmas alone together and end up taking drugs and listening to music. The conversation about the music they’re listening to enables them to establish an emotional connection and share deeply personal thoughts they haven’t ever shared with anyone else. Reading this scene felt like I was eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between two people who have found solace in each other’s company. It was beautiful.
The one part of this book that didn’t really work for me was the story surrounding Jesse’s father. I felt as if its inclusion was a little bit tacked on and I struggled to understand its relevance to the plot of the story or to Jesse’s character development. Like others have already articulated, I did feel as if the last sections of the book weren’t as strong, but overall there were lots of great things to take away from reading Rainbow Milk.
This was a great debut novel and while it is not without fault, I believe it raises a very important discussion surrounding religion and views on homosexuality, as well as exploring what it means to be a gay Black man in a mostly-white dating sphere. If you are considering reading this book, please be aware that there is a lot of sexually explicit content which is definitely not for the faint hearted (but read it anyway because it’s really good).