Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is a novel about hypochondria, explored through the lens of its protagonist Sofia: an anthropologist-in-training whose major case study to date has been her mother, Rose. Rose is the victim of a never-ending slew of maladies, and right now her most pressing concern is a bout of paralysis that confines her to a wheelchair. So now the pair find themselves in a Spanish village in the hope of finding solutions from the mysterious Dr. Gómez. While this is the rough sketch of the story, its nuances are many as it investigates the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship. Sexuality, identity and estrangement; myths and monsters; purpose in life or lack thereof. These ideas are brought to life by the story’s supporting cast: the alluring and enigmatic Ingrid Bauer; the inscrutable Nurse Sunshine; the young man Juan who tends to Sofia’s jellyfish stings; and Sofia’s Greek father who has forged a new life and family in Athens.
“Fleshed out just as vividly is the southern coast of Spain—a hot, heady haze in which the story unravels. Levy describes it so evocatively that she renders it real; an exotic, if claustrophobic, character in itself.”
Fleshed out just as vividly is the southern coast of Spain—a hot, heady haze in which the story unravels. Levy describes it so evocatively that she renders it real; an exotic, if claustrophobic, character in itself. The off-beat title Hot Milk tells of many things. It hints to Sofia’s job working in a coffee shop back home in London and to mother-child ties. But under the fierce Almería sun, it is suggested that something has curdled and gone awry. The stingrays too—or medusas as they’re called in Spanish and referred to in the novel—float in the Mediterranean sea like a constant menace; a threat that lies just below the benign, balmy surface.
“Hot Milk” by Deborah Levy, cover (close-up)
Deborah Levy—a contemporary writer whose last two novels, Hot Milk (2016) and Swimming Home (2011), were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—began her career as a playwright and it’s clear she still delights in creating scenes. As unsettling as Levy’s Spain is, her vivid descriptions betray a love for this landscape. She describes Almería’s “massive heat” and its “lunar landscape,” its “scorched mountains” and “desert jasmine,” “the hot rocks, the transparent sea.” She evokes “the salty mineral smell of the dark, free-floating [sea]weed” that is “enticing and intense,” and the area’s culinary traditions: “The churros come in two sizes. Long sausages to dip into chocolate and then a shorter kind.” She details the minutiae of the local market, describing a trip down a “…dust road, dodging the potholes and dog shit, past the handbags and purses, the sweating cheeses and gnarled salamis, the jamón ibérico from Salamanca, the strings of chorizo, plastic tablecloths and mobile-phone covers, the chickens turning on a stainless-steel spit, the cherries, bruised apples, oranges and peppers, the couscous and numeric heaped in baskets, the jars of harissa and preserved lemons, the torches, spanners, hammers…”
“I gazed at the deep blue Mediterranean below the mountain and felt at peace.”
“I gazed at the deep blue Mediterranean below the mountain and felt at peace,” Levy’s protagonist Sofia expresses at one point and you get the sense the writer shares this sentiment. It’s not hard to imagine her sequestered in a small, white-washed building with a view across the ocean, contemplating its calm as she writes. Or scribbling notes in a town square cafe, ordering churros and anise liqueur for sustenance.
Indeed, when the writer wrote Love Undone—a short story for The New York Times last August—she confessed, “The salty Mediterranean Sea has always been my particular pleasure,” while providing an autobiographical account of a love gone sour in its midst. “Majorca was paradise but I could not bear it,” she concluded, in reference to a Gertrude Stein quote. Perhaps the memorable, heady atmosphere of this European encounter was one Levy bottled and wrote into Hot Milk.
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, 2016, 218pp.