Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez

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.