“It’s funny, horrible, intriguing and beautifully written” – Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

hmdl1Confession: this is my first Levy. Well may you laugh, all you Swimming Home and Black Vodka aficionados, but I’ll catch you up soon, because if Hot Milk is any kind of decent representative sample of Levy’s output, then you’re onto a good thing and I’m a daft latecomer.

Sofia Papastergiadis is a PhD-dropout, a waitress, and a very dutiful daughter: she’s come with her mother, Rose, to the south of Spain to see Gomez, an idiosyncratic medical consultant, about Rose’s problem – she can’t walk. Except, of course, when she can. Sofia is her mother’s helpmeet, a watcher and an aide and a nursemaid who’s own life has developed as a mere epiphenomenon to her mother’s suffering. Sofia’s Greek dad left them a long time ago – he’s settled now in Athens with a woman Sofia’s own age and a new baby – and now, in Spain, they’ve spend the last of their money on this one final diagnostic push. But is Gomez a quack? Can he actually help Rose – or Sofia – and what’s with his own daughter (aka Nurse Sunshine), who’s been seeing the boyfriend of Sofia’s own fling, German seamstress Ingrid? Will the cracks in Sofia’s and Rose’s relationship splinter further, or will all be redeemed? How come there’s so many terrifying jellyfish everywhere?

For a short novel, Hot Milk is a very busy one, and its deceptively realistic prose style masks a narrative that’s as provoking and frustratingly bewildering (in a good way) as it is, in another way, straightforward. Alongside the ‘will Gomez fix Rose’ plot (itself hilarious as Rose alternately flirts with and tries to sabotage the efforts of the doctor), there’s two parallel love-stories for Sofia, a painful section where she reunites with her estranged father and his odd new wife, and all kinds of tangents whereby we get drawn into mini-plots involving mad dogs and jealous partners. There’s a lot about female sexuality – Sofia’s sort-of affair with Ingrid and her convenient hook-ups with the summer life-guard – and the nature of familial bonds: who owes what, and how much, to whom? Where does love and intimacy tip over into emotional abuse and/or obsession? Is abandonment preferable to suffocation? How infantilizing need love be? (Sofia’s father puts his wife down for naps; Sofia’s mother refuses to acknowledge her daughters adult life, and yet behaves, herself, as the child needing full-time care, to the extent of lying about her own mobility.) The theme of exile, or the exile, is a looming one, too: Sofia’s neither fully English nor fully Greek; Rose, though constantly harking back to her Yorkshire roots, took on Greek as an alternative identity when she married Christos; Christos’s latest bride is an ex-pat confined to her apartment with a tiny baby, and even Ingrid is out of place – the notion of home, and one’s ability to make, sustain or return to one, is questioned throughout. Where does Sofia fit in? By the end, it seems there’s nowhere for her to go: does this signify doom, or is the dismantling of her family and her assumptions about the future a positive step in the creation of a new, happier self?

Again, Levy’s not particularly in the business of answering questions like that: the book’s more about breaking down our ideas about families and couplings and expected outcomes than it is about resolving narrative threads into neat bows. The most interesting aspect to Hot Milk – I reckon – is how it examines the mother-daughter relationship; the self-sabotaging, masochistic nature of bond, alongside love, or its residue. Rose, in particular, is a mesmerising character: Sofia’s portrait of her is bitter, envious, affectionate, pitying and longing, all at the same time. There’s no simplification or stereotyping in sight – these people are messy and messed up and, despite the extreme, almost grotesque, nature of their circumstances (Rose considers chopping off her own feet; Sofia is perpetually swollen with toxic jellyfish stings), they’re utterly believable.

Any Cop?: If you want tidy resolutions you might not get on well with this book, but otherwise it’s funny, horrible, intriguing and beautifully written – a definite recommendation from us.

Valerie O’Riordan

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