Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
This novel was my first encounter with Levy and I’ll confess, I read the book and wasn’t necessarily wowed by it at first. Upon reflection though, the more I thought about it, the more I started to get to grips with some of the themes within, it’s grown on me.
The initial premise is simple. Sofia takes her mother Rose from Yorkshire to Almeria on the Spanish coast to attend, at great cost, the private clinic of Doctor Gomez, who will get Sofia’s mother walking again. Although there are no outward reasons why she should struggle to walk, Rose’s hypochondria confines her to a wheelchair for most of the time. While Rose is treated, Sofia is free to follow her own desires, but is finding it very hard to break free from her mother…
During an early swim, Sofia is stung by a jellyfish:
Yesterday afternoon I got stung and it left a fierce purple whiplash welt on my left upper arm. I had to run across the hot sand to the injury hut at the end of the beach to get some ointment from the male student (full beard) whose job it is to sit there all day attending to tourists with stings. He told me that in Spain jellyfish are called medusas. (p2)
This is the first mention of Medusa – the raging Gorgon of ancient Greek mythology, with snakes for hair and a stare that could turn anyone to stone. The whole novel abounds with imagery, allegory and metaphor relating to Medusa, especially the modern feminist interpretation of her as full of anger (see Wikipedia here). Sofia appears to represent a human embodiment of Medusa in this novel, and you can see people looking at her sideways or observing from a distance rather than straight on. Is she becoming a monster? In between some of the chapters, a disembodied voice looks at her and comments:
There she goes. The beautiful Greek girl is walking across the beach in her bikini. There is a shadow between her body and my own. Sometimes she drags her feet in the sand. She has no one to run sun-cream on her back and say here yes no yes there. (p10)
Sofia’s mother may be a Yorkshirewoman, but her father is Greek, now with a new young second wife and child back in Athens. Sofia is an anthropologist by training but has been trapped into a role reversal looking after her mother, ending up working in a coffee shop rather than having her own life. The novel’s title ‘Hot Milk’ gives another layer of metaphor relating to the bond between mother and daughter from suckling at the breast, and Rose seems to be unable to let go of Sofia entirely, and the novel features many other images of mothers and milk, including new-born kittens.
Doctor Gomez and his daughter whom he calls Nurse Sunshine, act out another part. He reminded me in a tiny way of Conrad’s Kurtz without the ‘horror’ or John Fowles’ Magus, disguising his quackery with technology and cod-psychiatry, playing sort of mind games with Sofia, but these are on a much lower level than Fowles or Conrad
Sofia does her best to set herself free from these chains though. She has liaisons with Juan, the student in the medusa hut and the mysterious Ingrid. Unable still to quite get the freedom she craves, she obsesses over setting free Pablo’s dog who is tied up in the sun every day. She escapes temporarily to Athens, where she finds herself trapped once again with her father and his new family. Back in Almeria, she must decide what to do next…
This short novel was very complex on many levels. Not only shortlisted for the Man Booker, it is also short-listed for the Goldsmith’s Prize this year which is for experimental fiction – I felt it was fairly conventional though. It’s certainly well-written and I enjoyed teasing out some of the imagery. I never really warmed to Sofia, but I did feel I understood her by the end. In all, the effect was slightly tepid for me as Sofia’s rage simmers for so long before boiling over! (7.5/10)
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Source: Own copy.
Deborah Levy, Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton, March 2016) Hardback, 224 pages.