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.
In Issue No. 1 we meet Australian fashion icon Jenny Kee, translator from Italian Ann Goldstein and French-Cuban music duo Ibeyi. We learn about Ramadan, the Aboriginal ball game Marngrook, the Kiribati dance, the art of pickling, and the importance of home. And we see what it’s like to dress up in Myanmar, live in Cuernavaca, make ceramics from different soil, and walk the streets of Florence.
In Issue No. 2 we meet New York-based Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, and Croatian painter Stipe Nobilo. We discover how the French protect their language and the way women—all around the world—have used textiles as their political voice. We listen to lovers rock, prepare a boisterous Korean barbecue, venture to go to Feria de Jerez and eat our way around Hong Kong.
In Issue No. 4 we meet Nigerian-born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, Indigenous Australian Elders Uncle Bob Smith and Aunty Caroline Bradshaw, and Palestinian-American chef and artist Amanny Ahmad. We peer inside the Parisian ateliers Lesage and Lemarié, muse over the iconic lines of European chair design and celebrate the colourful woodblock prints of Japanese artist Awazu Kiyoshi. And we venture along Morocco’s Honey Highway, get lost in the markets of Oaxaca and discover the favours of Ghana.
In Issue No. 5 we travel to the mountains with Etel Adnan, along coastlines wherever waves roll in, and then all over the world through the photographic archive of Lindsay James Stanger. We celebrate hair braiding in South Africa, Salasacan weaving techniques in Ecuador, Vedic jewellery traditions and the new sound of Ukraine. We meet artist Cassi Namoda, choreographer Yang Liping and lace-maker Mark Klauber. And we visit a bakery in Tel Aviv, discover the joys of making arak, and spend a summer stretching mozzarella in Italy.