Book Review: The Colour of Milk

The Colour of Milk

I’m not typically keen on works that push the envelope of fiction. I tend to like my literature the way I like my music. Classic. Major keys. Straight out of the Great American Song Book. But I have to say that Nell Leyshon’s latest novella,The Colour of Milk (Publisher: Ecco; On Sale: January 2013; Cost: $14.95) is by far one of the more creatively written works I’ve read in recent months. And to Ms. Leyshon’s credit, it’s rather difficult to put down.

The novel traces the life of 15 year old Mary who is one of four girls born to a local farmer. Mary has the unfortunate luck of being both sharp-witted and physically disabled, a fact that makes her a liability in the eyes of her father who would rather have had a boy than a girl, and an able-bodied girl than a disabled one. Making matters even more frustrating for readers is the fact that Mary’s mother is a complete invertebrate, a passive soul who would rather see her three daughters severely punished than save them from a life of hardship and abuse. 

Mary’s elderly, invalid Grandfather is in a similar strait of ignominy amongst the family, spending his time in a cupboard beneath the stairs. Or perhaps that’s a different story. At any rate, theirs is the most honest and innocent relationship of the entire novel in that it’s not based upon any sort of quid pro quo. The grandfather loves his granddaughter unconditionally and the granddaughter loves her grandfather. Not to mention that she’s really the only person in the family to give a damn about the ailing old man.

Before the reader has the opportunity to get extremely upset with Mary’s parents, the poor lass is shipped off down the road to the local vicar’s house to tend to the minister’s dying wife. The arrangement is a hasty one, with the vicar paying Mary’s father a sum for her services as a housekeeper, whilst providing her room and board as she learns the trade of managing a household. Naturally, none of this occurs with even the facade of Mary’s consent.     

From this point, the story progresses rapidly when Mary begins to learn to read. Accordingly, the entire novel is written in lowercase, giving readers a true sense of Mary’s voice and the mental struggles she endures. In fact, it’s this theme of endurance that underpins much of the novel. Leyshon’s work challenges readers to consider their own limits in a situation of hardship – particularly the price one would be willing to pay for the gift of literacy (a gift that in most Western countries we take for granted). Mary’s lot in the story is very much imbued with this conundrum and the resolution of matters isn’t an obviously moral one.  

While I won’t reveal much more of the plot, I will add a word of caution for those interested. Mary’s situation could easily be read from the perspective of a modern, feminist social commentary on female opportunities in the 1830s. But, given that Jane Austen has more or less run the field in this sub-genre, a much better way of understanding Leyshon’s work is to appreciate the existential value it provides – think Camus’s The Stranger rather than Pride and Prejudice. Leyshon’s work requires that readers undertake a moral assessment at nearly every turn, underscoring how so much of life is lived in neither black nor white but in the monochrome of grey.

In all, it’s difficult not to recommend a novel that challenges one to question so many assumptions. Not to mention the fact that the work is well written and told from a truly unique perspective. All of the above, of course, is a tribute to this pithy author who manages to say much while writing fairly little.  

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My Neighborhood

Silverdale, Hamilton NZ

I don’t have many friends here in New Zealand. In fact, aside from my colleagues at the school, I’ve met hardly anyone. This dilemma is the three-fold product of not having a vehicle, awaiting my first pay stub, and working full-time. But the longer I’m confined to my corner of town, the more I find that belonging to a place is a funny thing. And, in fact, this sense of belonging is not terribly difficult to achieve if one tries. 

Consider my almost daily trip to the carry out place down the street, or as they say here in New Zealand the “take away.” By the by, I can’t say I understand the nomenclature. But then again, I can’t understand why Kiwi drive on the left side of the road and substitute the letter “s” for “z” in ways that make no sense. For example, if New Zealanders had the word in their vocabulary, “privatize” would be spelt “privatise.”

I suppose it’s not only the nomenclature that makes little sense. They play cricket here too.

God bless America.   

Anyway, back to my take away shop.

It’s difficult to chat sometimes with the amiable proprietor given our language barrier. As noted, I speak American whilst they speak English with inflections of Vietnamese. But I come in often, and I feel rather comfortable here. They’ve also gotten to know me quite well and usually fire up a cheese burger when they spot me crossing the street. 

The place is run by a father, his son, and his wife – who, incidentally, speaks way better English than either bloke. But it’s the father who’s the chatty sort. He likes to give me a hard time for ordering the cheapest, least healthy thing on the menu. I can’t understand him all the time, but those times I can’t, I’m pretty sure he’s saying in Vietnamese that I’m going to give myself a heart attack. I respond to his shenanigans by reminding him that my consistent patronage keeps him in business. This always gets a good laugh.

Tomorrow, we’ll repeat the schtick. Because, after all, we both know I’ll be back. 

And that’s the funny thing really. My analytical mind knows that this is a transactional relationship. He and I chat because we both want to continue the arrangement: he provides a service and I pay him for providing me with food. But in nearly all ways, it’s a perfectly honest, open relationship. Does that make it less of a friendship because its transactional? I don’t think so.

The bottom line is that they are keeping me well-fed and I am helping to keep them in business. And when you share a small corner of the globe in a small corner of the country, in a small corner of town, well, that’s just what neighbors do.

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Happy Waitangi Day


You can be forgiven if the salutation above means relatively little. If I hadn’t the day off, it’s quite likely the day would have passed from my radar too. Even so, Waitangi Day is New Zealand’s celebration of its founding document the Treaty of Waitangi. The treaty marked an 1840 agreement between the Māori peoples and the “Queen of England” that permitted the Brits to establish a civil government in New Zealand in exchange for the recognition of Māori ownership over their lands and other property interests. 

Unsurprisingly, there has been much disagreement on the contents of the treaty – the lot of which makes my job here possible. Of principle importance is what exactly both sides ceded in the original understanding of the treaty. The Māori contend that they did not give up complete sovereignty to the Crown such that their traditional governance entities would be rendered moot. The British Government and, subsequently, New Zealand’s constitutional monarchy contends that, in fact, the Māori did just this.

Of course, the the matter isn’t quite so black and white. Consider that the New Zealand Government established the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 to hear Māori claims of violations of the treaty. To date, some $700 million have been spent by the Government on reparations to the Māori in the form of land and property transfers, and formal apologies for violations of the treaty, all with the consent of the British Monarchy. Such payments, however, have stoked the resentment of some non-Māori New Zealanders who allege that the Māori are simply exploiting the treaty to obtain special privileges from the Government. The Māori claim that such concessions by the Government are simply what is appropriate given the destruction of their culture and governing structures.

As an aside, my work here will focus on the restoration of traditional Māori governance structures and their long-term viability. To wit, concerns about extant Māori governance entities have reached such a pressing level that the University of Waikato’s Māori and Indigenous Governance Centre has committed significant resources for examining the best practices of tribal governance from around the world in hopes strengthening Māori governmental institutions at home. All of which is a very long way of saying that my work here will focus on finding ways to help create stable governing entities for Māori peoples. 

Taking a step back, as an American in New Zealand, it’s a bit odd celebrating another country’s founding. But I tried to get in the spirit by having a lunch of what the locals call fish and chips – or what I routinely call fish and freedom fries much to the confusion of my local restauranteur – who happens to be a Vietnamese immigrant that speaks only limited English. To compensate for my foolishness, I make it a point to leave a tip. Unfortunately, I think this further confuses him since New Zealand isn’t a country that tips its service industry workers. Strange, I know. 

In all, it has been a relatively agreeable Waitangi Day. I met a number of colorful characters, including a neighbor named Jared who tells me that he has an aunt who is Sioux. Incidentally, I met Jared when he dropped by and woke me up, around 8am this morning asking to for a spoonful of instant coffee for his coffee mug. I suppose I’ll have plenty of time to sleep when I’m dead – although sleeping in would have been quite nice today. I was also pleased to make the acquaintance of Syd, a local, Indian entrepreneur who runs the quick-mart only a couple of blocks away. The Simpsons would be proud.

And with such august company, I have to say that the national holiday/day off has been quite nice. From the Southern Hemisphere to you, Happy Waitangi Day.

Public Transportation, The Original New Zealand Excursion

I decided to venture out yesterday. This was not an easy thing for me to do. As my wife would attest, I prefer habit over adventure and tend to stick close to the rivers and the lakes that I’m used to, quoting the immortal TLC.

That said, I am also particularly loathe to use public transportation, especially busses. I’m not sure where this phobia came from but most of my experiences with bus systems have been bad. Some of this stems from a personal incompetence at reading the bus grid, with its complex schedule of fares and timetables, not to mention that no bus in the history of busses has ever run on time. Given that its the middle of summer here and a balmy 78 degrees with 50% humidity, I was also more than a bit frightened at the thought of a crowded bus with poor AC.

Nevertheless, I made the 20 minute walk to my local Walmart equivalent, affectionately called The Warehouse. One can call New Zealanders many things but ostentatious isn’t among them. After finding my various necessities, I ambled along toward the local bus stop. Having studied the bus grid before I left, I felt confident that my luck with public transport would turn for the better.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when it didn’t. Rather than taking me toward my destination, I inadvertently boarded the wrong bus due to New Zealand’s affinity for driving on the wrong side of the road. Two hours later, after taking the entire bus loop, I arrived at the stop nearest my residence. My twenty minute trip by foot turned into an afternoon-long tour. As it happened, poor AC and crowded seats were very real, though very negligible, concerns.

In all, I learned a valuable lesson from my excursion. Busses are cursed. Avoid them if at all possible. When taking local public transportation becomes necessary, take the train or a cab. You’re welcome.

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