Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

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Review by Annabel

Hot Milk Deborah Levy Penguin

This novel was my first encounter with Levy and I’ll confess, I found Hot Milk a difficult book to read. Levy has an oblique style that doesn’t yield its secrets readily. However, upon reflection, I began to comprehend at least some of the underlying metaphors, references and themes within. With understanding, the novel grew on me.

Hot Milk’s 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 Gómez, 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 finds 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.

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. To me, Sofia appears to represent a human embodiment of Medusa in this novel – 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 rub 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 – she doesn’t like having to put the word ‘waitress’ as her occupation when she fills out the first aid form. 

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 is unable to let go of Sofia, controlling her in a not entirely benign symbiosis. The novel features many other images of mothers and milk, including new-born kittens.

Doctor Gómez 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 free herself from these chains, to rediscover her own identity. She has liaisons with Juan, the student in the medusa hut, and the mysterious Ingrid whom she meets in a cafe. Unable still to quite get the freedom she craves, she obsesses over setting free Pablo’s barking dog who is tied up in the sun every day. Not even temporary escape to Athens helps, where she finds herself trapped once again with her father and his new family. Back in Almeria’s hot, dry heat, she must decide what to do next, leading to the climax of the novel.

This short novel was complex on many levels. Not only shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2016, it was also short-listed for the Goldsmith’s Prize for experimental fiction. Although the structure is linear, Levy certainly experiments on her readers! It’s certainly well-written and I enjoyed teasing out some of the imagery – I say ‘some’, because other readers whom I’ve discussed the book with, have differing interpretations – seeing Rose as the Medusa rather than Sofia for instance.

Hot Milk is a challenging and thought-provoking, multi-layered novel that would make an ideal book group choice.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.

Deborah Levy, Hot Milk (Penguin, 2017) ISBN 978-0241968031, paperback, 224 pages.

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