Mendez, Paul. Rainbow Milk. Doubleday. 2021. $26.95. 316p. HC. 9780385547062.
Jesse McCarthy is a 19-year-old Jehovah’s Witness of Jamaican heritage living in West Bromwich, England, recently disfellowshipped from his congregation when word spread that, while smoking pot and drinking beer, he made a pass at another boy. Rainbow Milk, by Paul Mendez, follows Jesse as he is driven from his family, and prompted to move to London, a place where he can build a life for himself and where he can explore his burgeoning sexuality–in true party-boy fashion, too, complete with drugs and promiscuity. A coming-of-age novel with an overarching theme of self-acceptance, Rainbow Milk is also a writerly novel–with references to literary giants like Jean Genet, Ezra Pound, and James Baldwin–and as Jesse searches for a boyfriend and discovers startling revelations about his birth father, he is also coming to recognize himself as a writer.
I recently read Rainbow Milk for a local gay men’s book group to which I belong, and while the members of our group ultimately enjoyed the novel, there was a consensus that the lengthy prelude is a laborious read and decidedly not an indication of the narrative style used in the remainder of the book. Apart from this I found that the novel is finely crafted, that Jesse’s adventures and inner life are engaging, and that the narrative progression is inventive and playful. Jesse is a pundit of R&B music, capable, for example, of detecting subtleties in the way different divas might sing a song, and the reader follows the many flashback memories provoked by a variety of songs (there’s even a playlist at the end of the book), producing for us an emotional depth to his pain and joy.
Rainbow Milk is a gay coming-of-age story and a portrait of a writer as a young man, and it will certainly appeal to readers who enjoy this type of novel. Public and academic libraries need this book on their shelves, especially those who prioritize the creation and maintenance of a diverse collection that seeks to reflect the values and lived experiences of the diverse communities they serve. That after a UK release in 2020 it proved itself worthy not only of republication in the US in 2021 but also of nomination for a Lambda Literary Award in the category of Gay Fiction, speaks to its appeal to readers of LGBTQ+ literature. But more broadly, I think Rainbow Milk will resonate with readers who themselves have struggled with matters of self-acceptance, for Mendez is telling a story familiar to many of us: the struggles of a young man overcoming (or trying to) the trauma of familial abandonment and the internalized homophobia produced by a severe religious upbringing while learning to embrace himself as worthy of acceptance and love.
Andrew T. Powers
MSI ’22 University of Michigan