Rainbow Milk

an Observer 2020 Top 10 Debut

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Pub Date 23 Apr 2020 | Archive Date 31 Jul 2020

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Shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize


'Sensuous and thrillingly well written', Observer

'When did you last read a novel about a young, black, gay, Jehovah Witness man from Wolverhampton who flees his community to make his way in London as a prostitute? This might be a debut, but Mendez is an exciting, accomplished and daring storyteller with a great ear for dialogue. Graphic Erotica Alert! Don't read this book if you like your fiction cosy and middle-of-the-road' Bernardine Evaristo, winner of the 2019 Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other

'The kind of novel you never knew you were waiting for. An explosive work that reels from sex, to sin, to salvation all the while grappling with what it means to black, gay, British, a son, a father, a lover, even a man. A remarkable debut' Marlon James, Booker Prize winning author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf

'This debut cements Mendez as a stunning new voice in fiction' Cosmopolitan

Rainbow Milk is an intersectional coming-of-age story, following nineteen-year-old Jesse McCarthy as he grapples with his racial and sexual identities against the backdrop of a Jehovah's Witness upbringing and the legacies of the Windrush generation.

In the Black Country in the 1950s, ex-boxer Norman Alonso is a determined and humble Jamaican who has moved to Britain with his wife to secure a brighter future for themselves and their children. Blighted with unexpected illness and racism, Norman and his family are resilient in the face of such hostilities, but are all too aware that they will need more than just hope to survive.

At the turn of the millennium, Jesse seeks a fresh start in London - escaping from a broken immediate family, a repressive religious community and the desolate, disempowered Black Country - but finds himself at a loss for a new centre of gravity, and turns to sex work to create new notions of love, fatherhood and spirituality.

Rainbow Milk is a bold exploration of race, class, sexuality, freedom and religion across generations, time and cultures. Paul Mendez is a fervent new writer with an original and urgent voice.

Shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize


'Sensuous and thrillingly well written', Observer

'When did you last read a novel about a young, black, gay, Jehovah Witness man...

Available Editions

EDITION Other Format
ISBN 9780349700595
PRICE £14.99 (GBP)

Average rating from 30 members

Featured Reviews

Really enjoyed this read. Refreshing to have a good story alongside graphic erotica – so often it’s one or the other but not both together.

Jesse grew up as a Jehovah’s witness, but as he discovers his sexuality he is ‘defellowshipped’ and alienated by his family. Heading to London to forge a new life, we follow him as he embarks on a whirlwind of sexual encounters, before settling into a new life.

I thought the characters were well written and the story developed naturally and compellingly - found it hard to put this down.

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The story opens in the 1950s with boxer Norman Alonso and his family settling in the Black Country. He clearly isn't well and the family face racism from the British people, but Norman hopes that the move will secure his family's future.

This story is then abandoned to pick up the story of Jesse McCarthy in the early 2000s. A young, black Jehovah's Witness, he seems to have a bright future ahead of him until one misjudgment on his part causes him to be rejected by the church and his family. He moves to London in an attempt to find his place in the world, instead finding racism, waiting tables, sex work and a whole host of people to become his new family. Jesse's story occupies the vast majority of the book as he forges his own identity and finds his place in the world.

I found a lot of this novel absolutely compelling - Jesse is an engaging character and he meets a load of unusual and quirky people throughout the novel. The description of Jesse's childhood and the Jehovah's Witness movement was fascinating - totally alien to me, but really interesting. Jesse's struggles with his sexuality and involvement in sex work were also really believable, although really quite graphic in places as other reviewers have suggested. However, I found the book slightly uneven, particularly the long descriptions of waiting tables and the final bringing together of the family strands, both of which slowed the pace dramatically and could have been a bit more rigorously edited.

Overall, this is a very unusual story and definitely an interesting portrayal of a complex life. It's not for the faint-hearted, but Jesse is a lively, likeable and memorable character who will stay with you for quite a while to come.

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Rainbow Milk is the story of a young man growing up and dealing with race, sexuality, class, and the after effects of having been brought up a Jehovah's Witness. At the start of the millennium, Jesse leaves the Black Country and his planned out life in religion to discover London, sex, drugs, love, and freedom. He does sex work and works as a waiter, he looks for friendships and purpose, and most of all, he forms new meaning for his life and who he is. And ultimately, reaching out from the past is a family connection he never knew that might give him a wider sense of belonging.

This is a gripping coming of age novel that really highlights the intersectional nature of oppression and identity, particularly how race affects both sexuality and religious upbringing. The narrative structure moves forward but also flashes back to show how Jesse' life progresses by focusing on key moments. There is also an initial section focused on Norman, who moves to the Black Country from Jamaica in the 1950s, and places Jesse's story within a wider picture of the Windrush generation and the treatment of black people in Britain. A lot of the novel is dialogue-focused, with many of the main scenes featuring lengthy conversations, and Mendez makes this very real and immediate, using characters' respective linguistic styles and dialects to show their complicated relationships and identities.

The content is sex, drugs, and Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mendez tells it in a bold, sometimes sad, and also heartwarming way. What makes Rainbow Milk feel distinctive is that it is full not only of exploration of big issues of race and sexuality and religion, but it is also full of hope, and forging your own future and family even when it might not fit what you or your upbringing had anticipated.

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Rainbow Milk is brilliant - a beautifully realised coming-of-age story that both gripped and moved me, Cleverly plotted, it weaves the stories of a family settling in Britain after arriving on the Windrush and a young man coming to terms with his identity in an oppressive society, as Andrea Levy's Small Island and Matthew Lopez's Inheritance collide in a unique and engaging story. Set against a backdrop of an ever-changing Britain from the 1950s by way of the terror of 9/11 to the present day, it paints a portrait of Britain, and the people who make it. Fans of Bernadine Evaristo will certainly enjoy this astounding novel.

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Like Bernadine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other, Paul Mendez's assured debut, Rainbow Milk, charts an unacknowledged British history, of the Windrush generation, its legacies, right through to the coming of age of a young black man, Jesse McCarthy, growing up in the black country, rejected by the Jehovah's Witness's, despite being one of its congregation's favoured sons, thrown out by his family too. It begins with the arrival from Jamaica in the 1950s of experienced gardener and ex-boxer, Norman Alonso and his pregnant wife, Claudette, full of dreams, hopes and expectations. They are shocked by the sooty air and pollution of the black country, the inescapable hostility and racism directed at them from every nook and cranny of their new home. Matters are exacerbated as Norman begins to experience horrific headaches, finding he is slowly becoming blind and unable to work any more, trying to look after their children, Robert and Glorie, with the consequent unbearable pressures faced by Claudette.

Jesse is a bright boy, advised to leave education, working at McDonalds, unable to be who he is, making his way to London, operating as a sex worker, taking drugs, with all the dangers and threats this poses. He gravitates towards older white men, seeking a permanent relationship and to be looked after in a way that he has never experienced in his life. The depths of his mother's abuse and cruel neglect is slowly revealed, refusing to provide him with information about his father, other than that he was dead, but did she lie to him? Jesse grows up bursting with self hatred and anger at being black, convinced his mother fed him rainbow milk in the hope that he would die. Despite everything, unsurprisingly he misses his family that had denied him love, affection and any form of meaningful care and the Jehovah's Witnesses, blaming himself rather than them for failing him so catastrophically.

It takes Owen and their Christmas Day conversation for the light to begin to dawn on a tearful and lost Jesse, that he has thought of himself as white, how white men withdraw their love, never valuing him other than for sex, leaving him hungry, injured, depressed and broke. He has been left with a vacuum, the belief system and the family he had grown up had gone, they are no more He has to build himself another belief system, find a new centre of gravity and a new family. His church had brainwashed him from a young age that god is white, and the only embodiments of god on earth are white men, teaching him to worship white men, teaching him that he is less than nothing in comparison. However, circumstances conspire that he loses Owen just as they have found each other, only for them to meet again later.

Mendez's portrayal of Jesse is heartbreaking, I found myself completely invested in Jesse, desperately worried that the trajectory of his life was going to end in tragedy, but amidst the darkness, there are shards of light and hope, with the music and culture from the period. Jesse carves out a new life and family that speaks to the truth of who he is, the painful construction of a new identity, love, friends and eventually connecting with the existence of a family he never knew of. This is challenging, profoundly moving, storytelling, of the impact of the endemic historical and contemporary racism faced by the Windrush generation and their descendants in Britain, something that we can observe has never disappeared with the damning racist and hostile environment directed at them by a Home Office headed by Teresa May and which still continues. Mendez gives us a personal depiction of what this meant for the disenfranchised Alonso family and how it never diminishes for Jesse, from his schooling, his religion, and its impact when it came to his sexuality.

This is a stunning, unforgettable, riveting and compulsive reading, although I should warn readers that it is sexually explicit. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Little, Brown for an ARC.

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Thematically, an important and interesting look at a young gay black man's experiences in modern Britain. I just couldn't connect with the characters for some reason, and it all left me a little cold. Nonetheless, a bold new voice in fiction.

(With thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC of this title.)

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Title - Rainbow Milk

Author - Paul Mendez

Genre - LGBT Historical Fiction

I had been provided with an e-Arc by the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

If you are someone who are a huge fan of Historical Fiction, you would know that one gray area that authors hardly thread is the life of protagonist who come under the LGBT Umbrella. I had first come across Rainbow Milk in one of the booktube videos and I had immediately added it to my list. Rainbow Milk is one of those books that I would surely recommend to all the lovers of Historical Fiction and there are multiple reasons for it. Here is my take on why this book has been on my list of favorite books this year.

Rainbow Milk starts with the story of an ex-boxer Norman Alonso who unfortunately is losing his eyesight and we see how he and his family moved from Jamaica to UK during the war times and how he still has hope that there will be a time when blacks will be treated as equals among whites. We also see Jesse McCarthy around the year 2001 and ahead who has escaped his household after he was no more a part of Jehovah's Witness when he made homosexual moves towards his friend and has decided to start a new life in London. From living in a hostel and meeting new people to getting his life back on track, Jesse shows us the struggle of an individual who has been discriminated throughout his life for his race, class, sexuality, freedom and time.

For people picking this one up, explicit content is being warned of. The author has such crisp writing throughout the book that it does not take up much effort for anyone to get along with the characters. Every character has been given their individuality and they have been portrayed so beautifully that you cannot help but fall in love with each and every character. The main focus of the book is on Jesse and the narration is done pretty well from the first person perspective and it does let the reader fall in the character as if we are the particular individual.

As I mentioned early, the book is quite bold but it hardly comes up as something crass anywhere throughout. The emotions that are portrayed are so raw that at times you do feel that just does not let you put the book down. The only part where I was not completely satisfied and was left pretty much open ended was the closure of Norman's character which apparently seemed a bit rushed up and could have been detailed a bit more.

For a debut novel, this one is truly a masterpiece. Paul is bound to get us hooked from start to finish and do not let one get bored during the book. For someone who needs to learn the struggles of how an LGBT individual is learning to get accepted across decades, this book is a must pick. Highly Recommended.

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This book completely surpassed my expectations. Rainbow Milk is a semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age novel that follows 19-year-old Jesse McCarthy, a young gay black man who flees his very religious community in the West Midlands to make his way as a prostitute in London. This book tackles themes of race, class, religion, sexuality, freedom, privilege and more. Paul Mendez is such a gifted writer and I devoured this book in four days. His prose is the kind I love, rich and descriptive without ever being boring or flat. The novel opens in 1959 and tells the story of a man named Norman Alonso. In the 1950s, Norman, who was born in Jamaica, moves to the Black Country in England with his wife in search of a better life. However, life in England isn't quite what they'd hoped and the hostility and hardship they're forced to endure proves too much to bear. I loved the beginning of Rainbow Milk, even though I initially struggled to understand the connection between Norman and Jesse.

The book is bold and frank, full of trauma with a generous dash of wit. Jesse's character is so vivid and loveable, and he sadly received little to no familial affection growing up. Jesse's journey of self-discovery is quite remarkable, from the people he meets in London and his wild ride of sexual encounters to him finding out who he really is. I really enjoyed the graphic erotica in Rainbow Milk. Mendez portrays feelings of lust and desire so satisfyingly.

Overall, this is a thrilling, engaging and unique novel that left a huge impression on me. Rainbow Milk explores the intersections of race, sexuality and class while highlighting the histories and experiences of black people in Britain. Mendez has done something very special with this book. It's a must-read, especially for those interested in queer fiction.

Thank you to Dialogue Books and NetGalley for gifting me with an advance digital copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

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Rainbow Milk as a title attracted me to this book as did the beautiful cover and reviews from Bernardine Evaristo and Marlon James. It is the coming of age story of a bright and sensitive young man. It is literary and involving. It tells the story of how Jesse finds his place in the world and sees how he fits in, feels part of his family and history. Don’t be put off by Evaristos ‘graphic erotica alert’ or ‘jehovahs witness’ because there are only three or four sex scenes early in the book; likewise the jehovah strand is important mainly in the beginning. There is no sex and little religion for three quarters of the book. More importantly it is about being gay and black and working class.
I knew from the early Norman Alonso pages that I was in the hands of a talented writer and great storyteller. I was involved in the narrative because of this though some of the early sex scenes shocked me as I don’t usually read sex. Alonso is a Jamaican in the 50s and Jesse growing up through the 80s to around 2016. I thought it a clever ‘cut’ from one to the other and knew the book would be about how they were linked. We go from family to religion to London and sex work and meeting Owen the love of his life and future husband. I was invested in Jesse and loved his story especially the music included which was so much a part of his history. He carves out a new ‘family ‘ of friends and new identity. I read it in two days being totally involved. Recommended. This review appears on Amazon. Thanks to #Netgalley the publisher and author for a review copy.

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