The Colour of Milk, By Neil Leyshon

She was only a farmer's daughter, but ...

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The Independent Culture

Open a novel by Nell Leyshon, the author of Black Dirt and Devotion, and you will hear the characters begin to speak in haunting, distinctive voices as if in a radio play; perhaps no surprise, for she is also a scriptwriter.

In The Colour of Milk we hear the voice of a woman who would normally be lost to history: in 1831, an English farm girl could not usually read or write, but against all odds, 15-year-old Mary has learned. Sharp-tongued yet honest and tender, she writes exactly as Leyshon imagines her to have spoken, and pays scant attention to punctuation. How and why she becomes literate is a key element in this account of one year in her life.

Much about this novella is diminutive, not least its dinky format. Mary is "not very tall", and the youngest and physically weakest of four sisters, all bullied by their slave-driving father. She hardly ventures beyond the farm until her 15th year, when he sends her half a mile away to wait on the Rector, his sickly wife and his arrogant son Ralph. Life in the rectory is an enormous change and she's homesick.

It's striking how what we would think of as a tiny scrap of countryside is Mary's entire world, and we need to understand how this has shaped her. Mary marks time not by a clock but by the rising and setting of the sun, by the routines of animals and the changing seasons. Practically the only place beyond the parish she ever mentions is a university to which Ralph departs. When the Rector teaches her to read, it's from the sole book she knows, the Bible. Yet Mary's spare, simple words paint brilliant pictures in the reader's mind of a hundred different experiences: collecting eggs, tending her sweary invalid grandfather, climbing a hill to exalt in the Easter sunrise, dusting the beautiful white room where the vicar's wife reposes.

In its quiet and subtle way this is a story about the abuse of power in a man's world. Mary's life is dominated first by her father, then by the Rector. When the Rector offers to educate her, she wrongly sees it as an opportunity to escape. She writes to justify her complicity in the terrible events that ensue.

Nell Leyshon's imaginative powers are considerable, yet the restricted canvas of this outing makes me long for her to attempt something more ambitious.

Rachel Hore's latest novel, A Gathering Storm, is published by Simon & Schuster