The Power of the Mythic Medusa in Deborah Levy's 'Hot Milk'

An intelligent exploration of myth, memory, and the monstrous in the feminine.

Hot Milk

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Length: 224 pages
Author: Deborah Levy
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-07

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.