There is much to admire in Paul Mendez’ semi-autobiographical debut novel Rainbow Milk, a vibrant exploration of sexuality, race and religion set in the UK across generation ... Although the opening section is only 40 odd pages of a lengthy novel, it stands alone as a virtuosic piece of writing – urgent, original and heartbreaking ... Mendez’ ear for dialect gets us close to his characters. Norman’s voice is sympathetic and convincing ... The problem with Rainbow Milk is a baggy middle section whose shocking subject matter grows tiresome by the book’s final third. Jesse finds work as a rent boy in London, the details of which are initially related in powerful, sensual scenes. Disgust drips from the page in a grotesque set piece with a drugged-up client in a grimy flat. There are numerous encounters in bathrooms and nightclubs depicted in language that is not easily forgotten ... After a while, though, the obsessive level of sexual detail – there are more bulges and dicks in this book than there are hot dinners – lessens the impact. Crucial moments get lost amid the memories ... Pacing is a big issue, and while Mendez is clearly a talented writer, the less interesting parts of Rainbow Milk – the intricacies of the service industry, the views about his favourite music, a rambling episode at a publisher’s house, an overly long lunch break with friends – leave us longing for the brilliance of earlier. Published by Dialogue in an initiative to give a platform to underrepresented writers, Rainbow Milk has much to recommend it. Much like its title, it is a bright, brash colourful read by an author who has plenty to say for himself.
a novel that does what great debuts do – bringing an originality of voice and vision to the form, refreshing our ideas of what is possible in fiction ... These two stories build into a novel of huge power and emotional impact, written in language that is sharp, distinctive and often beautiful. 2020 has been a year of superb debuts and Rainbow Milk is among the best.
[An] erotic and fearlessly explicit debut ... the impact of Mendez’s frank descriptions of sex acts is not amplified through multiple tellings. Rather, it suffers diminishing returns. The prose is more rewarding when recounting, with tenderness, how Jesse arrives on the streets ... The most successful areas of this immersive semi-autobiographical story are where it explores the intersection between Jesse’s performance of sex and his performance of blackness ... his emotional intelligence is stunted, and Mendez shows how it’s possible to find a route to self-knowledge through an excited interrogation of song lyrics. The downward slide of unprotected sex and hedonism, which results in physical injuries, leads Jesse to have an epiphany of sorts.
As with writers like Marlon James and Nicole Dennis-Benn, Mendez’s dialect-writing stretches the boundaries of a language owned by no one ... Mendez writes Jesse’s desires in an honest, unprecious and often raunchy staccato ... The writing is delicious and subtle throughout, often punctuated by musical references that ground it in the decades it explores ... Mendez balances the story atop the shifting tectonic plates of dislocation, and in the gaps Jesse discovers new friends and lovers who show him, through unexpected kindness, what it’s like to be seen. That a Black gay man can embrace the totality of his lust, and others’ lust for him. It’s unclear how Mendez will land this bold, horny and at times unmoored debut until a line toward the end winks at just how this unwieldy tale works: 'You’ve lost your center of gravity,' a friend tells Jesse. 'So to survive, you’ll need to take steps to create another.'
Mendez distinguishes his own work through his careful attention to the line between self-acceptance and self-abandon ... the first novel I’ve read where the white, male, middle-aged body is eroticised and fetishised to this degree; its strength, its smells, its symbolism and its possession are written about in a way that maps power relationships going back centuries, and undercuts the more typical focus on the black male body ... In London, Mendez describes every home, pub, toilet, and restaurant in forensic detail, with an awareness of class signifiers and small details that is both entertaining and moving. Occasionally, the equation made between wealth and apparent goodness is too blunt, but for Jesse comfortable, pristine homes signify safety and love, and his history accounts for his quick judgement ... a bold and raw novel, and although some edges still need sanding down it is memorable and affecting. There is one stretch in the middle where the prose is fine, fluid and luminous.
Rainbow Milk is a candid, sometimes uneven novel. But at moments it’s electrifying – an algorithmic pop ballad that suddenly transcends itself and sounds different, more affecting, like the opening chords of a Prince song ... Rainbow Milk is a book poised between worlds that skips across time and place ... Mendez is subversive in other ways too: he flirts with tragedy only to sidestep it ... Mendez knows that what you anticipate from a narrative of this kind – including black pain – is the worst news, but things don’t always happen quite like that. There’s suffering here, but it’s subtler and more complicated than readers may expect ... By devoting the same amount of space and precision to making coffee as to administering a blow job, Mendez makes clear the arbitrary and pointless distinctions between types of work. It’s hard not to be wowed by the audacious parts of the novel – but I was just as absorbed by the bits that are deliberately dull. Then again my tolerance for digression is high. Some readers may feel they’re being forced to watch an intolerable art film which intersperses hardcore sex with scenes in which people endlessly straighten knives and forks on a dinner table in order to demonstrate that sex and economics can’t be separated.
The prose is muscular, the sex graphic, the dialogue sharp. The whole thing fizzes with energy and drive, set to a soundtrack that runs from Ella Fitzgerald to Jay-Z, Joy Division and Mary J. Blige ... a complex and intersectional treatment of race, class, sexuality and sex work and a powerful, thrilling and accomplished debut novel.
We have to wait until the final pages to see how the two stories connect, but both are defined by a sense of shame — whether of blackness, disability, queerness or class — which Mendez captures like few other writers at the moment ... not for the faint-hearted. But it is more real and generous than most contemporary novels, intoxicating in its jeopardy and lust. And while it is raw and unfiltered — and occasionally overstuffed — Mendez’s writing also bears the imprint of much British realist literature about queer life ... Mendez never shies away from the melodrama of sex, the cymbal-crashing opera of desire. He is a unique new voice in the British novel.
Rainbow Milk is among the more convincing debuts I have read in years. It is also one of the more humane. Mendez allows Jesse to articulate his thoughts and feelings without exploiting his struggles for cheap consumption ... Mendez’s 'graphic' depictions of anal and oral intercourse throughout Rainbow Milk are essential to an understanding of Jesse’s psychological and emotional trajectory. His sexual hunger speaks to broader concerns, not least of all financial desperation. It would be morally appalling to gloss over such moments in his experience in order to maintain literary decorum ... As important as ideas are to Rainbow Milk , the novel is equally distinctive for its architectonics and style. Mendez builds effective long scenes tense with sexual possibility and doubt. Said scenes promise (or sometimes threaten) explosive release but terminate before climax, ensuring his emotional and sexual frustration will continue through vast portions of the book ... Paul Mendez has created a character of genuine depth and dimension, someone whose searching haunts the reader’s mind long after one returns the book to a shelf.
Mendez’s sterling debut is an epic, by turns sexy and harrowing, a tale of shouldering ostracism, racism, poverty, and other dangers, and not only surviving but also finding joy, art, and love in the process. Skillfully hopping through decades, Mendez reveals Jesse’s present and past—particularly his punishing home life and the religion he must unlearn—and then, near the book’s end, returns to Norman’s story in a surprising way. Stunningly forthright and emotionally evocative fiction from an exciting new voice.
Rainbow Milk is an important and ambitious book. From the Windrush generation through the Aids crisis, to what it means to be a black, gay writer in Britain today, Mendez stitches blackness, disability and illness, queerness and class deep into the fabric of the narrative ... Overly earnest discussions of music...are lengthy ... certain key events confusingly happen off stage ... There is much more to applaud than there is to criticise, though ... the chapters detailing the traumas of Jesse’s adolescence – think Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight but set in the West Midlands, with Bibles instead of crack – are beautifully done.
Mendez dazzles ... Mendez has a full bag of tricks and a sprawling range, deploying biting social commentary; unflinching, intense sex scenes; and exquisite prose, making his work alternately reminiscent of Bernadine Evaristo, Garth Greenwell, Zadie Smith, and Alan Hollinghurst. Readers will be hard put to find a more inspired voice.
While compelling at times—especially when Jesse interrogates the nexus between his sexuality and Blackness—the novel sags with overwritten passages: long digressions into music, repetitive sex scenes, mundanities described in excessive detail. The pace drags, with key scenes lost in the midst of less significant ones. Structurally, the novel is confused and inconsistent. The events of the moving first section, about a Windrush generation Jamaican family immigrating to a brutally racist Britain in the early 1950s, don't figure into the novel until the final quarter, when narrative threads about Jesse’s past are hastily (and messily) tied up ... Moving at times but not well executed.