Review: Hot Milk, Deborah Levy
A surreal and dissociative tale of mothers, medusas and restlessness
It seems only right that the first book I review whilst in U.K. lockdown is Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, a book set in far-away and long-forgotten Southern Spain. I sub-consciously read this the same week in May I was due to fly out to Valencia to visit my brother. Instead, I was at my mother's house in Cambridge, my isolation station for a total of three months, where I consequently regressed from an “independent” 24 year-old Londoner to a child caught in arrested development in a matter of days. Time stands still in lockdown.
Set in post-2008 recession Europe, Levy’s Hot Milk similarly displays this suspended state of living. Sofia and her mother Rose have travelled to the hot and sleepy Spanish city of Almería, where they have come to seek a last-chance cure for Rose’s mysterious illnesses (including sporadic paralysis and intermittent headaches) at Dr Gómez’s clinic.
Dr Gómez offers controversial solutions to Rose’s symptoms – he attempts to persuade her to ditch all of her medicines, and convinces her to rent a car, despite her claims of numbness in her legs. He also, slyly and mystically, advises Sofia “to steal a fish from the market” to make her bolder. Gómez views Sofia as acting as an extension of her mother’s walking stick, and notices that Sofia even subconsciously limps like her mother. Whilst giving strange medical advice to Rose, Gómez pushes to make Sofia less weak, and to find her own independent purpose aside from her mother’s recovery.
Sofia Papastergiadis, the narrator, is a 25-year old anthropology student caught in a mid-twenties existential crisis. She suffers a fraught, complicated and co-dependent relationship with Rose alongside anxiety, dissatisfaction and a general malaise with herself and her life-choices. Whilst currently working (and living) in a London cafe, Coffee Shop, at the back of her mind lies her abandoned PhD researching memory, and she narrates the story and characters like an anthropological study. She is clever and curious but directionless; she floats like the medusas she suffers multiple stings from. Moving slowly and aimlessly, Sofia has fleeting but intense sexual and romantic interactions with people in the town. There is Ingrid Bauer, the spontaneous German seamstress “whose body is long and hard like an autobahn”, and Juan, a kind Spanish student who works in the injury hut on the beach and attends to tourists with stings.
However Hot Milk isn’t an exploration of young female sexuality – Sofia never questions her own sexual desire, and it doesn’t really matter if her lovers are female or male. Instead, Sofia interrogates her family, identity and her independence and, as Sofia comments, “it was the start of a bolder life.”
Mid-way through the novel, Sofia goes to Athens to visit her Greek father Christos, who left Sofia and Rose years before to return to Greece, married a much younger woman, and fathered a new daughter. The trip is semi-successful: her father refuses to support her financially for her PhD, yet Sofia sparks up a relationship with Alexandra, the new wife. It is in these female friendships, with Alexandra and Nurse Sunshine, Dr Gómez’s daughter, that Sofia detaches herself from both her parental ties and expectations and explores a new sense of her identity.
Hot Milk is a strange, surreal novel. Levy’s writing is poetic, beautiful but ambiguous. I had to re-read the ending several times to fully grasp the last sentence, and its lasting implication has weighed heavily on my mind. Like the medusas who haunt the dark Mediterranean seas and menacingly lie beneath the surface, the novel’s sharp ending appears unexpectedly and leaves a mark. Levy litters Hot Milk with strange motifs which border on the side of magical realism: in the first paragraph Sofia drops her laptop and describes the shattering of the Milky Way screensaver. But the destruction of her universe extends beyond the digital.
Things are never what they seem: Ingrid gives a white halter-neck top to Sofia with ‘Beloved’ embroidered in blue silk. Although, it turns out, Ingrid has actually embroidered ‘Beheaded’. Bizarre, but fitting. There are also continuous references to Greek mythology and tragedies, and to the creation and destruction of civilisation; in one scene, Rose stands among “the shards of fake ancient Greece” after Sofia throws a Greek vase to the floor.
Levy captures the sense of mid-twenties aimlessness so well that I found myself resonating with Sofia. Speaking to a friend, she was also reminded of herself throughout the novel. The only anchor keeping Sofia tied down is her mother. Otherwise, Sofia’s relationships, career, studies and life-choices all stretch out in front of her. This can be overwhelming: a vast, deep sea of possible choices and experiences, and I empathise with Sofia’s initial reaction of simply floating with the tide. Levy’s vivid descriptions of seemingly trivial events, such as Ingrid killing a snake, perfectly express the slow limbo-like state where the smallest things can seem the most important and have the most meaning. The fact that Hot Milk takes place in Spain and Greece, two European countries heavily affected by the 2008 economic recession, adds to this restlessness. Nationwide unemployment and an impending sense of chaos mingle with Sofia’s own personal crises.
Throughout the novel, Sofia becomes less passive and more independent, and by the end, a re-ignition for her PhD in the United States takes form. Hot Milk is not a coming-of-age novel, a sexual awakening, nor an exploration of the mother-daughter bond, although it does tap into all those themes. It is a dissociative, sexy tale of Sofia shifting the anthropological gaze from others and towards herself.