I love to read an intelligent novel, one that makes demands upon the reader, that isn’t all about the story. A book that looks at something in a new way, shows me something from a different angle. Such a book is Hot Milk, a tale, as the title suggests, about a mother and her daughter relationship that is not going well. This novel is readable, very moving and thought-provoking.
A young woman, Sofia, and her mother Rose (64) have come to Almeria in Southern Spain, a place where the desert meets the sea. Rose has come to the Gomez Clinic at great expense, in order to find a cure for her unnameable, undiagnosed illness that has afflicted her for so long. Sofia accompanies her as her carer. Rose cannot walk, she claims, has no feeling in her feet. While Rose consults the possibly charlatan Dr Gomez, Sofia undertakes adventures that widen her previously small life.
‘I wanted to write a story about hypochondria,’ said Deborah Levy in an article in the Guardian. One of the curious features of hypochondria is that while it is about fabricated and imagined illness, it is itself a pathology. It also ensnares others, in this case Sofia.
Sofia tells the story. Here is how the novel opens:
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 that anyone else.
So what I am saying is that if it is broken, so am I. (1)
Sofia is conscious that her life is very restricted. A little while later she goes swimming and meets the medusas – stinging jellyfish:
I am far away from shore but not lost enough. I must return home but I have nowhere to go that is my own, no work, no money, no lover to welcome me back. When I flipped over I saw them in the water, the medusas, slow and calm like spaceships, delicate and dangerous. I felt a lashing burning pain just under my left shoulder and started to swim back to shore. It was like being skinned alive as I was stung over and over. (71)
Poor Sofia, she doesn’t have much going for her: an abandoned PhD in anthropology, barista job, single, never lived with anyone but her mother, father abandoned them when she was 7 and returned to Greece. While Rose attends the clinic Sofia develops two love affairs, with Ingrid a German seamstress and Juan who looks after the injury tent on the beach and treats her for multiple medusa stings.
With Sofia as the narrator we should ask, are things how they look? After a few pages we are wondering about Rose’s illnesses, Gomez clinic, what Ingrid embroiders on the silk sun top, the broken laptop, the wrong sort of water, the dog that barks, her father’s newfound happiness in Athens, everything…
The author herself explains the central question raised by the novel:
Hot Milk puts the Medusa to work to ask Sofia a question: what is so monstrous about a young woman, who constantly has to endure the violence of the ways in which she is societally gazed upon, returning that gaze full-on? What would it take to insert her subjectivity into the world, instead of looking away? [in How to Write a Man Booker Novel in the Guardian, as above]
Sofia has to learn that we should not always accept the identity given to us because of our nationality, gender, ethnicity, age, occupation and so forth. We are also, she learns, constructed by the things that happen to us, that we take part in. Identity is formed in part by experiences, which she finds when she follows Dr Gomez’s suggestions, such as practicing boldness. Here the myth of Medusa’s stare is significant. You may be stung by the gaze of others, but you can choose not be turned to stone or beheaded.
Rose, the mother
Part of Sofia’s problem is her mother. Her hypochondria has locked Sofia into a mutually dependent relationship. Sofia loves her mother, but hates her at the same time. She hates her mother’s unreasonable demands, the way she flirts with Gomez, the possibility that she lies; she understands how difficult it was to raise her after Christos left, how she takes on the world and her charm. Sofia wants more for her mother as well as for herself. In the final pages of the novel she articulates this.
I had been waiting on her all my life. I was a waitress. Waiting on her and for her. What was I waiting for? Waiting for her to step into her self or step out of her invalid self. Waiting for her to take the voyage out of her gloom, to buy a ticket to a vital life. With an extra ticket for me. Yes, I had been waiting all my life for her to reserve a seat for me. (216)
I like the use of words throughout the novel, often calling up several meanings. In this passage I can pick out the following: waiting on her mother, invalid, waiting for herself.
Sofia is by training an anthropologist. This allows her, as narrator, to use her powers of observation as in this list of ingredients in the scene at the market.
I stood up and took my place behind the wheelchair, lifted up the brake, which was difficult because my espadrilles were flopping off my feet and began to push my mother down the dust road, dislodging the potholes and dog shit, past the handbags and purses, the sweating cheeses and gnarled salamis, the jambon iberico from Salamanca, the strings of chorizo, plastic tablecloths and mobile phone covers, the chickens turning on a stainless-steel spit, the cherries, bruised apples, oranges and peppers, the couscous and turmeric heaped in baskets, the jars of harissa and preserved lemons, the torches, spanners, hammers, while Rose swatted flies landing on her feet with a rolled-up copy of the London Review of Books. (93)
Touristy and practical, African and European, tacky and sophisticated, old and new and that final humorous image! There is lots of humour in this book, like the lunch that Sofia attends, but she is not allowed to speak.
Also delightful are Sofia’s occasional riffs on the meanings of things, such as her Greek father’s new wife, who has given up a high powered job saving the Euro for cosy domesticity in Athens where she frequently has to pretend to be asleep.
This is the first novel I have read by Deborah Levy. She has written six, and many plays. There is more about her on her website. I plan to read Things I don’t want to know (2014) next, being an answer to George Orwell’s Why I Write and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (2016) Hamish Hamilton. 218pp (Paperback available in May 2017)
Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize and Goldsmiths Prize 2016
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