Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

I think if I knew more about Greek mythology, anthropology, medusae, father-complex and cultural memory, then Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk would be even better, and more layered with meaning, than it already is.

As it is, I understand enough about hypochondria and passive-aggressiveness to know that what Levy has created in the characters of Rose and Sofia is truly excellent stuff.

“Hello Sofia. I can see that you’ve been having a nice time at the beach.”
I told her the beach was desolate and that I’d been staring for two hours at a pile of gas canisters. It was my special skill, to make my day smaller so as to make her day bigger.

Sofia and her mother, Rose, travel to southern Spain, to visit a clinic run by an unconventional ‘doctor’, Gómez.

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

Rose hopes that Gómez can cure the mysterious paralysis that confines her to a wheelchair and Sofia hopes that a cure will free her from her mother’s incessant demands and dependency.

That is the mystery of my mother’s lame legs – sometimes they step out into the world like phantom working legs.

Gómez observes –

“It’s the vitality she puts into not walking that concerns me.”

Additional characters – Gómez’s daughter, ‘Sunshine’; Sofia’s estranged father and his young, new wife and baby; and Ingrid, a German tourist with whom Sofia becomes infatuated – provide further elements to the story.

Levy explores themes of strained family relationships and feelings of solitude. Her writing is beautifully detailed, evocative and lyrical, and it seems that there are layers of meaning in every sentence, analogies at every turn – monkeys in glass cases; a father constantly urging for naps; silk embroidery; a broken laptop screen; glasses of water; a beheaded snake; an unfinished PhD… But perhaps I’m looking for meaning when there was nothing but a straightforward story about an angry mother and daughter intended?

Ingrid carries out a tray of her homemade lemonade…she’s not exactly a wife, more like a cocktail waitress who is also an athlete and a mathematician.

Levy creates an exceptional sense of place – you feel the blistering Mediterranean sun, the salty water and dusty paths. At the same time, she injects a feeling of menace into the southern Spanish coast, with seawater swarming with stinging tentacles; a manic dog straining at a chain; Ingrid and her weird, unhinged impulses; and feral cats circling the town square. Even the small narrative interludes, where the reader ‘watches’ Sofia from a distance, add tension and create a sense of unease.

A table for three had been reserved in the village square restaurant because he assumed she could walk there with relative ease from the apartment. It had not been an easy walk. My mother tripped over pistachio shells that had not been swept from the square the night before. I had spent an hour sorting out the laces of her shoes but, in the end, Rose had been felled by a nut that was no bigger than a large pea.

5/5 Weird, unnerving, compelling. Hope it wins the Booker tonight.

Rose is asked if she is enjoying her bean soup“Enjoying is too strong a word. It is wet but tasteless.” To which Gomez eventually replies, “I hope your appetite for enjoyment gets its strength back.”

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22 responses

    • Eileen is bizarre. Good but seriously dark.
      Re the but in Hot Milk – I felt the same at first but those buts are fading and what I’m left with is a bunch of characters I can’t stop thinking about. At this rate, it might end up my favourite book this year.

      • I had the joy of reading Swimming Home when it was first published and basically unheard of (so much so that the publisher linked to my review on their website!). How I came across it I have no idea, although suspect it was because it had the word ‘swimming’ in the title and that would have caught my eye.

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  2. I agree that there were lots of layers & hidden depths in this story. It’s what gave this book it’s edge & kept me reading. It’s haunting me more than I thought it would too.

  3. Great review! I’ve seen this all over the place lately, but it’s one of those that I haven’t bothered looking into *because* it’s everywhere. As a result I didn’t really know what it was about. So I’m glad I read your post because I think I’d actually like this book!

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  7. Your review was so interesting to read! You are so right, the sense of place is wonderful, the heat, the sun, the dust… all rise from the page. She has also captured the wonderfully horrid passive aggressive relationship between mother and daughter, how cowing it is for the “victim”; but for me, the wider psychological tenets felt weak, all pulled together by contiguous happenings and relationships that just felt too random. I guess she is just not an author for me!

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