Hot Milk – Deborah Levy

Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor of a bar built on the beach. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath (designed like an envelope), landing screen side down. The digital page is now shattered, but at least it still works. My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else.

So what I am saying is that if it is broken, so am I.

Twenty-five-year-old Sofia Papastergiadis, our narrator, is not the only person in Hot Milk who is broken; her mother is sick and expects Sofia to be her carer. She hasn’t seen her father, who has another daughter to his young wife, for several years.

She is in Almería, Southern Spain so her mother can attend the Gómez Clinic to discover what is wrong with her legs. Her mother has had to remortgage her house to pay the twenty-five-thousand euro bill. Sofia says she’s been ‘sleuthing my mother’s symptoms’ for twenty years but as soon as she thinks she’s close to discovering the issue, ‘Rose merely presents a new and entirely mysterious symptom, for which she is prescribed new and entirely mysterious medication’.

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The previous afternoon, Sofia was stung by a jellyfish and had to be treated by a male student whose job it is to sit on the beach treating tourists who get stung.

He told me that in Spain jellyfish are called medusas. I thought the medusa was a Greek goddess who became a monster after being cursed and that her powerful gaze turned anyone who looked into her eyes to stone. So why would a jellyfish be named after her? He said yes, but he was guessing that the tentacles of the jellyfish resemble the hair of the Medusa, which in pictures is always a tangled mess of writhing snakes.

The jellyfish reoccur throughout the story, clearly a metaphor, I thought, for Rose, Sofia’s mother, whose portrayal reminded me most of Carol Ann Duffy’s rendering of ‘Medusa’.

When Sofia’s sting is treated, she has to complete a form which asks for her occupation, amongst other things. She tries to leave it blank. She currently works in a coffee shop in London but ‘I want a bigger life’. She has a first class degree, a master’s degree and an abandoned PhD thesis, left unfinished when her mother became ill. ‘The unfinished thesis I wrote for my doctorate still lurks in a digital file behind my shattered screen saver like an unclaimed suicide.’ Pushed, she writes ‘WAITRESS’ on the form.

On Monday my mother will display her various symptoms to the consultant like an assortment of mysterious canapés. I will be holding the tray.

But while Ruth undergoes her assessment, Sofia begins to live. She has relationships with the student who treats her jellyfish sting and Ingrid Bauer, a woman she meets in Café Playa. Ingrid, in particular, gives Sofia a sense of freedom she doesn’t seem to have experienced before. As Rose is taken off all of her medication by Doctor Gómez, Sofia flies to Greece to see her father and meet her little sister.

The book begins with an epigraph from Hélène Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa:

It’s up to you to break the old circuits.

The phrase could apply to both Sofia and Ruth.

When the receptionist called out for Señora Papastergiadis, I took Rose’s arm and we limped together across the marble floor towards the desk. Yes, we are limping together. I am twenty-five and I am limping with my mother to keep in step with her. My legs are her legs. That is how we find a convivial pace to move forwards. It is how adults walk with young children who have graduated from crawling and how adult children walk with their parents when they need an arm to lean on. Earlier that morning, my mother had walked on her own to the local spar to buy herself some hairpins. She had not even taken a walking stick to lean on, but I no longer wanted to think about that.

The way in which Sofia finally forces the break in dependency is dramatic and was the part of the novel I found least convincing. However, I’m being picky. Hot Milk is an engaging exploration of a hypochondriac mother and the daughter she’s forced to become her crutch. It’s a fascinating portrayal of a mother/daughter relationship and the events that can lead someone to invent ways to keep their child close by them. Levy’s writing is often metaphorical, there are moments in the book not meant to be read as literal or possibly even probable (as I write this I wonder if I’m being too harsh on the ending, that I’ve read it as literal when it shouldn’t have been taken as such), and that elevates the writing to more than a story. There’s a lot to unpick here. Hot Milk stands up to multiple readings and interpretations; if that’s not a sign of a book worthy of its Man Booker Prize and Goldsmiths Prize shortlistings then I don’t know what is.

 

Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for the review copy.

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14 thoughts on “Hot Milk – Deborah Levy

      • Fascinating to see how you differ and both slightly from me too… here’s what I’ve just said on Annabels post:

        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.

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  1. Here’s the thing I love(d) about this book: every person who has reviewed it has focused on different aspects of the story. Furthermore, every review I’ve read since finishing the book says something along the lines of “there’s a lot going on, not sure I got all the metaphors, will need to reread” – which is fabulous, I reckon.
    And for the record, I found the ending to be Levy’s masterstroke – it was so deliberate, so clear, after so much that was layered with other meaning.

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    • Yes, I’ve noticed that too and completely agree, I think it’s a fantastic book because of the layering. I liked the very end it was the bit on the road I wasn’t a fan of. I thought it was over dramatic considering all the shuffling around the edges of the hypochondria that had gone on in the rest of the book. Interesting that you felt entirely the opposite way about it!

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  2. I would agree that every time you read a review of this book you see it from a different angle. I find it easier to think of Levy’s writing as neither literal nor metaphorical but existing somewhere on a borderland between!

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  3. I will confess everyone loves this book, at least they tweet about it, but I don’t know why. Hypochondriac mothers seem ot be in vogue of lately, and although I understand the appeal, I’m a bit tired of that construction of motherhood… Is it bad that I find it anti-feminist? I know there are mothers like that, and their daughters deserve to have their stories told, but I’ve stumbled upon a few novels with weak, easy-to-manipulate daughters because of their evil hypochondriac mothers and it’s just not working for me. I’d love to hear what you think though, as you think the book is good and open to many other interpretations.

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    • I think 1. this book’s central theme isn’t motherhood, it’s Sofia’s lack of direction. She’s relying on her mother as much as her mother is relying on her. Suggesting she’s weak and easily manipulated is a simplification of what’s portrayed in a complex manner here. 2. There is a section with Sofia’s father in which it’s clear he has also played a part and he offers a different view of Sofia’s mother.

      I think it’s a complex novel, which works on a metaphorical level as well as a literal one. I don’t think it’s anti-feminist, I think society doesn’t allow for multiple complex portrayals of women and that leads us to feel negative/complex/unlikeable portraits of women shouldn’t exist.

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