Deborah Levy’s newest novel, Hot Milk, opens with an account of its protagonist’s precarious relationship with the world in which nothing is permanent and small dangers are constantly at every corner. Sofia, who is 25 and in Spain to search for a treatment for her mother’s mysterious ailment—an inability to walk—has just dropped her laptop on the floor of a bar, and has recently been stung by jellyfish while swimming in the waters on the beaches of Spain. We learn that the jellyfish are called medusas over there.
Sofia, who lives in the UK with her British mother, has a Greek father whom she has not seen in 11 years, and this absence fuels her obsession with myth and monsters; her actions and thoughts are heavily symbolic, ripe with allusions to the myths that occupy her thoughts. Sofia is a young Medusa-in-waiting, especially in relation to her codependent relationship with her ill mother: “If I were to look at my mother just once in a certain way, I would turn her to stone. Not her, literally. I would turn the language of allergies, dizziness, heart palpitations and waiting for side effects to stone. I would kill this language stone dead.” It becomes clear to the reader that she is almost willing herself to be stung by the medusas, to absorb some of that poison in order to channel her passivity and indecision into something that would allow her to make a life for herself; to harness, in some way, the power of the mythic Medusa.
This is Sofia’s central problem. Educated and clever, she has abandoned her Ph.D. in anthropology to care for her mother but is adrift, caught up in her mother’s symptoms and living as her mother’s appendages: “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.” Sofia has become a good mind reader, as well, because her mother’s head is her head. She has learned to anticipate her mother’s needs and has applied her skills as an anthropologist to her mother’s illness, so diffuse and vague in its symptoms and causes, to no success.
And so they find themselves in Spain to visit the famous Dr. Gómez, whose clinic is described as being built from “cream-coloured marble in the shape of a dome”. When Sofia walks around the clinic as Dr. Gómez attends to her mother, she is “lost in a labyrinth of milky marble corridors”, and begins to feel “smothered by the veined walls”. The clinic seems to pulsate with its own alien, maternal energy; it seems to be made of the stuff of mothers, all milky marble and veins. This recalls a lost Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), except Sofia is less alienated from her body than her mind. As such, the tone of the novel is consistent; the reader is kept at a slight distance from Sofia, so estranged is she from owning her own emotions and expressing them.
This is the first time I’ve read a book by Levy, although she is a playwright and a poet, in addition to being an author of several novels and short story collections. Hot Milk has been longlisted for the Man Booker 2016 prize, and Levy’s reputation as a singularly talented writer is on display throughout this novel, and this is most obvious at the basic level of the sentence. Her prose is lean and taut, poetic and rich with symbolism; each sentence shaped with care with nary a redundant word.
Throughout the novel, Levy is able to convey the multiple meanings of metaphorical allusions with judicious use of repetition and rhythm. For example, Levy writes that “unfinished hotels and apartments had been hacked into the mountains like a murder” as Sofia observes the rampant destruction of natural sites in service of development. When Sofia reminisces about having to take out a mortgage on her mother’s home in order to pay for this trip to Spain, she recollects the posters she saw at the bank, “a rite of initiation (into property, investments, debt)”, images of houses “with a front garden the size of a grave”.
Sofia is eccentric and wry; her humour is caustic and dark and her wit is formidable, even if the only people who can appreciate it are the readers who allowed a glimpse into her mind. Levy is attuned to the financial crisis in Europe, and references to the Spanish crisis and Greek austerity (as Sofia, midway throughout the novel, goes to Athens to visit her father and his young wife and baby) situate Sofia and her mother in the real world. This grounding is crucial, as the novel drifts into a kind of dreamscape as Sofia’s interactions with her mother become more surreal and an unidentified third-person’s sexually-frank and occasionally vicious narrative voice punctures Sofia’s first person narrative every few chapters.
As her mother attempts to heal, or to find some aspect of her old self that has been lost over the years, Sofia falls in love with a Swedish woman, Ingrid, and continues her investigative work into the problem of her family by visiting her father in Greece. Ingrid sweeps into view like some ancient goddess on a horse, all strong and toned arms and tanned legs encased in gladiator sandals and, like Sofia’s mother, she taps into Sofia’s monstrous feminine. Ingrid is constantly referring to “Zoffie”, as she calls her, as a monster, and Sofia starts to feel her desire and longing for Ingrid take form in ways that feel monstrous to her. This desire is formless and vast, and potentially overwhelming for Sofia.
But when Sofia sees her father’s young wife, Alexandra, in her late 20s and regularly cooped up at home because she is constantly taking naps with the baby, Sofia starts to take notice of what she is by becoming familiar with what she does not want: “I have no plan B to replace my father because I am not sure that I want a husband who is like a father”, she thinks. “Neither a god nor my father is the major plot in my own life. I am anti the major plots”.
Having an anthropologist as a main character allows Levy to explore interiority in interesting ways, and makes for a singularly unique inner voice. Sofia’s thoughts branch off into surprising or unexpected conclusions and connections; it’s rare that she is merely summing up her thoughts or feelings. Upon discovering her feelings for Ingrid, for example, and her sexual desire for the male student who tends to her medusa stings in the injury hut, Sofia contemplates the arbitrary and potentially confusing nature of toilet signs in Spain, and wonders if we’re all “just lurking in each other’s signs”. This is a brilliant and succinct way of describing the occasional mess and glorious complexity of human sexuality.
The epigraph to this novel is by Hélène Cixous from “The Laugh of the Medusa”: “It is up to you to break the old circuits.” Likewise, Sofia at one point concludes: “Anthropologists have to veer off track, otherwise we would never rearrange our old belief systems.” Family and lovers, like myths, have a force of power that is beyond people’s comprehension. For Sofia, who is “anti the major plots”, the story has to be remade. It’s too easy to be the maiden to her mother’s crone. But as Sofia knows, her love for her mother “is like an axe”. Breaking the circuits will break some parts of her, as well.
This is a story with no ending. It flows, like mother’s milk and a mother’s love for her daughter; like a daughter’s love for her mother and the milk of daughterly kindness. We will never know if Sofia uses the axe to break the old circuits, or if it’s even possible.
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