Review – Rainbow Milk

February is LGBTQ+History Month in the UK, and as part of our recognition of that we asked members of the Library Student Team at Manchester University to share their thoughts on some of the relevant books in our library. This is the fourth of the series of reviews.

Rainbow Milk Paul Mendez (FIC/MEN)

Reviewed by Tabita-Gabriela Juravle: “My name is Tabita-Gabriela Juravle and I’m a final year Politics student at The University of Manchester.”

‘Rainbow Milk’ is a novel that poses difficult questions about race, revealing the complexity of one’s racial identity: ‘His mother had married a white man, but how could a white man raise a black boy to be anything other than white, and to consider his blackness as a disability to endure?’. Paul Mendez writes differently about race, introducing Jesse McCarthy, a Jamaican-British boy, on the backdrop of the Windrush generation. He encourages the reader to see the history of race as plural, presenting various, sometimes conflicting, racial positionalities. What complicates the discussion about race even more in the novel is the intersection of race with other social categories.   

Paul Mendez is a Jamaican-British writer based in London. ‘Rainbow Milk’ is his 2020 debut novel which draws on his life experience as a seventeen-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, escaping from the Black Country, an industrial region in the West Midlands, to Tonbridge. After dropping out his engineering degree at the University of Greenwich, he moved to London to study acting while being a sex worker. In his semi-autobiographical novel, we follow the coming-to-age journey of Jesse McCarthy which mirrors Mendez’s life story. Paul Mendez writes into being a relatable character, intersecting multiple axes of social division such as race, sexuality, gender, and religion.  

The novel starts with the story of ex-boxer Norman Alonso who migrates from Jamaica to Black Country, hoping that his family will have a chance at a better future. At the turn of the millennium, Jesse McCarthy is adopted by a black mother and white father who raised him in the Jehovah’s Witness community. He is considered an exemplary teenager because he thoroughly studies the Bible, performs well in school, and works part-time at a McDonald’s nearby. Yet he struggles to bond with his family, especially when they find out about his sexuality. To escape the Jehovah’s Witness community and his unloving family, nineteen-year-old Jesse moves to London. The reader follows Jesse as he explores his complex identity as a gay black teenager, seeking love and friendship.  

‘Rainbow Milk’ is an impressive novel. It complicates the discussion about identity through intersectionality. Jesse’s identity is not limited to race. He struggles to make sense of his blackness, as well as his sexuality, masculinity, adulthood, and religious beliefs. By the end of the novel, the reader is left with a complex picture of Jesse which reflects his struggles of understanding how he perceives himself and how he is perceived by the ones around him. Other book recommendations might include ‘Giovanni’s Room’ by James Baldwin, which was heavily referenced throughout Mendez’s novel, and ‘Speak no Evil’ by Uzodinma Iweala.