Slightly tepid in style but full of the Gorgon’s rage…

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

hot-milkThis 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)

Read also: David’s Book World, Eric at Lonesome Reader.

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Source: Own copy.

Deborah Levy, Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton, March 2016) Hardback, 224 pages.

10 thoughts on “Slightly tepid in style but full of the Gorgon’s rage…

  1. Harriet Devine says:

    I tried this and gave up about a third through. I just didn’t get it at all and was amazed when it was shortlisted for the Booker. Glad you were able to appreciate it but I don’t think I’ll be going back to it!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was a bit hot and cold – and deliberately obtuse sometimes – but having got through it, it did grow on me. That was only once I started thinking about the imagery though, and remembering other tricksy novels that play games with you.

  2. Naomi Frisby says:

    I’m fascinated by the differences in our thoughts about this novel, Annabel! Interesting that we thought the Medusa represented different characters (which makes me think we’re both right). I read this particularly because it was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths and I disagree on it’s level of conventionality; I think it’s possible to read it as such but the layering and the amount of metaphors used make it experimental for me. I’m also not convinced we’re supposed to believe some of the event should actually happened, I think they’re metaphors for the nature of Sofia and Rose’s relationship. I’d love to sit down with you and Eric and David and have a lengthy discussion about this one!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Amazing how two readers can get different things from it isn’t it! On the question of conventionality – I’ve obviously read so many multilayered novels full of metaphor that play mind-games with you over the years, that this didn’t stand out as overtly experimental for me. It’s certainly a novel that provokes discussion though. (Hopefully, I’m coming to the PFD do soon – so if you’re there I’ll catch up with you 🙂 )

  3. Poppy Peacock says:

    Oh… if you have that chat I’d love to join in… I was almost mesmerised by this one, yet at times in a more discomforted manner than any sense of comfort… the heat felt palpable, uncomfortably so to the point I was actually thirsty just reading it, and it was not warming to Sofia that actually drew me in… but then my current fix are the characters that are more unlikeable the better. Great option for book groups 🙂

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I must admit that I do enjoy, perhaps somewhat masochistically, books with unlikeable characters same as you. This certainly would be a good book group one.

  4. Brona says:

    I also found this book curiously compelling and off-putting at the same time.

    I’m glad I didn’t abandon it early on like I nearly did as it’s after effects are lingering.
    It was one of those books that you have to just let go of your expectations and go with the flow. There was something unsettling about all the relationships – it seemed like they would just wash over you, but they actually get in under your skin…and leave their own little medusa sting!

  5. Max Cairnduff says:

    Interesting. I read Levy’s last and will probably read this. Multi-layered sounds very fair and the symbolism sounds interesting.

    I do know what you mean about her not seeming really experimental. I’ve not really found Levy to be that either.

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