The debut novel Bitter Milk by John McManus is a very unusually written story with an unusual narrator. It is told in a rambling manner, almost in a stream of consciousness type of narrative. Bitter Milk is about a boy living in a dysfunctional family in the east hills of Tennessee, whose best friend is Luther, a figment of his imagination. In fact, Luther is the narrator, making it quite a reading adventure.
As it is already hinted at, the characters that grace the pages of Bitter Milk are anything but ordinary or mainstream. Lorn, the storyís central character, is nine years old and has been raised by a mother who craves to be a man. He hates his relatives, is overweight and teased a lot by the kids at school. It is no wonder that he seeks companionship from an imaginary boy, someone who seems to want Lornís attention and is afraid that heís losing it to Lornís mother. Lornís mother is aware of Luther, which can easily confuse the reader, for it will seem at first that Luther does exist (there is a place setting for Luther at every meal, for example).
The main theme is Lorn's self-esteem, which starts out at rock bottom but grows after his mother leaves him without any explanation but a note advising him to talk to his aunt Ruby. (It was Easter Sunday, and he was to go to Ruby's house to participate in coloring the Easter eggs). He soon moves in with Ruby and her family, and now his future looks uncertain, at least to him. What the reader will find interesting is that Lornís growth in self-esteem and self-confidence seems to cause Luther to disappear, and it is very apparent after his mother leaves him. In fact, at one point Lutherís narration stops, which distracted this reader to no end. It was a subtle change in tone, but Luther for a while was nowhere to be found, as Lorn goes in search for his missing mother.
One of the big events in the book is the death of Mawmaw, Lorn's maternal grandmother, with a funeral attended by relatives. While the funeral isn't the center of the story, the death does impact the family in many ways throughout the book. It is especially difficult for PawPaw, who may be looking for a change in life now that his wife is gone. Pawpaw loves to sing bawdy songs all day long, to the embarrassment of the family. Lorn doesn't have much of a relationship with his grandfather, but that's about to change too, now that Mawmaw is gone. One thing the two do have in common is the love of the land, and PawPaw becomes integral to the future of their family, when a new uncle tries to convince the family to sell their land off to real estate developers.
Luther, the figment of Lorn's imagination, narrates the story, and without any chapter breaks or quotation marks for conversations, it is an unusual reading encounter that will not be forgotten. I think McManus has promise as a novelist, and this debut effort is worth noting, but it falls short in terms of making a bigger impact. While the characters are memorable and the story is unusually written, the reader may not truly connect with any of the persons that inhabit this book. It almost reads like an exercise in writing in some respects, but as a debut novel, it certainly is worth checking out and experiencing. This reviewer will definitely keep an eye out for John McManusís future novels, as he is definitely an author of great talent and promise.