Hot Milk: Deborah Levy

Verdict 5 stars

On the face of it, this is a novel about an invalid woman travelling to Spain to see a specialist doctor, supported by her daughter. While the story is told in the first person (by Sofia), the victim in this story is ostensibly (at least at first) her mother, Rose, who suffers from many ailments but is unable to pinpoint the cause of her pain. Sofia is weary from many years of looking after her mother, after her father left when she was five years old. Her mother’s pain has become her pain, her mother’s legs are her legs, her mother’s limp is her limp. She is young yet carries the burden of her mother’s disappointment on her shoulders. Sofia  feels older than her years but at the same time feels she has never grown up and done grown-up things, like own her own place where she could keep ample-bosomed women air fresheners and fly swatters.

The pair travel to Spain with the hope that the eccentric Dr Gómez can cure Rose. We never quite learn what Rose and her mother actually expected Dr Gómez to do (or what he expected to cure) but they are open to his unconventional methods and he even succeeds in convincing Rose to come off her medication, suspecting that her erratic paralysis is psychosomatic. During the course of his treatment of her mother, Dr Gómez turns his focus to Sofia. He shows a somewhat unexpected, almost fatherly, concern for her wellbeing and the effects that looking after her mother is having on Sofia. By instructing her to do something out of the ordinary, like steal a fish, Dr Gómez sets her on the right path to become bolder and forge her own way.

“I am becoming bolder”

One of this novel’s greatest strengths is its use of themes and imagery, which is savage and unsettling. It stays close to us and refuses to let go. Like the close and stifling heat we experience in Alméria, symbols of pain, disenchantment and languor cling to us like a film of sweat (“Agua, agua, agua… agony, agony, agony”). The medusas who swarm in the sea, waiting for their chance to sting. The axe that represents Sofia’s love for her mother. The incessant barking of Pablo’s dog. As the story unravels, these symbols begin to unravel too, and this is perplexing, for as unpleasant as these images are, there was some comfort to be had from their existence and their consistency. Their dissipation means that all is not right. I found myself concerned for Pablo’s dog (did he really drown???) and lamenting the clean-cut, black-and-white knowledge that the axe of Sophie’s love for her mother cuts very deep. Where did the medusas go? The appearance of a snake when Ingrid and Sofia are together is shocking and disturbing, as though one of Medusa’s snakes has emerged from the sea and follows Sofia to her home, and the violent reaction sets us on edge.

Hot Milk - Deborah Levy

One of the themes of this novel is the theme of motherhood and family. This is witnessed not only in the relationship between Sofia and Rose but also in the imagery of the white marble of Dr Gómez’s clinic, which is a dome shaped like a mother’s breast. The clinic is a homage to his wife, the mother of his daughter Julieta. Motherhood for Sofia and Rose represents obligation, the need to stay together to help each other no matter what. Where Sofia begrudges the support she has to give her mother, she does not quite acknowledge the sacrifices her mother made for her, having raised Sofia alone for twenty years. On the other end of the spectrum, Sofia’s father Christos shows none of this sense of familial obligation. The imitation Greek vase that Sofia shatters out of frustration with her mother should have been reserved for her father. The smashing of the vase, representing her mother’s shattered life and the fallaciousness of Sofia’s Greek heritage, was one of a number of violent outbursts we see from the bolder Sofia and I expected to see some of this frustration directed towards her father. When Sofia goes to visit, there is no acknowledgement of the debt that Christos owes his daughter, having been absent from her life for so long. Rather, she is made to feel like an inconvenience, with one of the first things she is told by her father and his new family Is where to get the airport bus next time. His lack of interest is crystallised when they eat together before Sofia leaves, and Christos decides that he will do what fathers do, and give her spending money for her trip.

“My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep”

As Sofia’s dad rummages for spending money through his pockets, we wait in anticipation, almost expecting him at this point to produce something of note from his pockets. Perhaps a cheque to help her with her studies in America, or something to help toward his ex-wife’s care. But what comes out of his pocket is a crumpled €10 note. Such a disappointing gesture is swiftly dismissed by Sofia who puts the note straight into the glass as the tip for the service they have just received at the restaurant. This is where we realise that there is no anger towards her father – but a sense of apathy. She has long resigned to the fact that he will never be an important person in her life. The anger and frustration toward her mother is out of love.

She has resigned to the fact that she doesn’t belong in her father’s new family and her only tie to him is her Greek surname. She barely speaks the language yet she carries a Greek name which caused her difficulties growing up when people ask her to spell Papastergiadis (it is telling that most people can only pronounce the “Papa-“ part of her surname). This theme of not quite belonging carries throughout the novel with the other characters that Sofia meets. Ingrid, the enthralling German seamstress and her American boyfriend Matty, the illegal immigrants hired by Pablo and even Juan the student working in the medusa sting tent. None of these people are permanently settled in their lives in Spain; they are all drifters, passing through or waiting for something else. What they are waiting for they don’t know, but they are waiting for something.

“Whatever you are waiting for may not arrive … it wasn’t there yesterday, and it is not here today”

In most stories watching the development and growth of the heroine is a rewarding and encouraging experience, but as the novel develops and Sofia gets bolder and more powerful, the novel reaches a tense boiling point and we never quite recover from the angst it instils. This is an excellent book, as hypnotic and dense and humid as the Spanish heat under which it is set, and one of those books that leaves us staring at the back cover long after we have reached the final page.

Deborah Levy
Delighted to have met Deborah Levy at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 🙂

Literary Mixtape

As always, here is my Literary Mixtape to accompany Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. Let me know what you think of my review below, or if you would like to add anything to the mixtape.

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