Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk provides a lukewarm first reading, but if you’re willing to work at it, resurfaces as a sensory masterpiece the second-time around
Perhaps echoing the pained cry of a millennial, who’s phone is the centre of their universe, we are met with Deborah Levy’s heroine, part-English, part-Greek, Sofia Papastergiadis, at the moment she has dropped her laptop, shattering its digital page into a broken constellation of stars that make up her galactic screensaver, onto the concrete floor of a beach-side bar. As if mourning the loss of a deceased best friend, Sofia cannot abide such a thing to happen: “My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else.” And just to hitch up the melodrama to a hysterical level, Sofia emphatically declares that “if it is broken, so am I.”
This frankly apocalyptic incident occurs abroad: “2015. Almeria. Southern Spain. August”, as the first chapter’s title ingenuously states. As a first-class Anthropology graduate, with an abandoned doctorate and a full-time job attending to the needs of caffeine-craving customers at a London café, the Coffee House, Sofia seems like your average 20-something drop-out, with no driving license, mortgage or mere direction in life to put to her name. Her mother is from Yorkshire, her Father (who fled back to his homeland when Sofia was 5) is from Greece. Floating out of time “in the most peculiar way” – some may say reminiscent to an experience of reading Hot Milk – Sofia is struggling to place herself in a world where everything seems like an opportunity for an anthropological field study. However, Sofia does have another occupation: sleuth to her mother’s legs.
Arriving on the coast of Spain, desperately seeking a culprit for the crime that is her mother Rose’s mysterious inability to walk, Sofia and her mother are at the end of their tether. Having re-mortgaged Rose’s house to afford the fees at famed Dr. Gómez’s clinic, Sofia and Rose enter into a world of fresh hope for a diagnosis, under the piercing glare of the desert sun. A fateful chance meeting with sexy German seamstress Ingrid Bauer and attention to a jellyfish sting by student-come-injury-hut-doctor Juan sets up the backdrop for a sun-drenched, sex-fuelled chick-lit novel: Sofia has been “stung into desire.”
Sun-drenched and sex-fuelled it may be, but Hot Milk is a whole lot more than just that.
Awaiting Sofia in Southern Spain are more uncertain leads than promising trails to solving leg-gate, Ingrid’s needle sews the potential for danger and taking both the seamstress and Juan for lovers leads Sofia to an anthropological study on sexuality: “are we all of us lurking in each other’s sign?” What appears first as a story destined for chick-lit paraphernalia metamorphoses into a menacing, psychological, hypnotic tale of mother-daughter relations, sexuality and the will to transform oneself into something bolder.
But, with poetic reverence and metaphorical bewilderment aplenty, on a first read, Hot Milk becomes somewhat of a 218-page enigma. You feel in-depth, university-style analysis is needed, just to make some sense of Levy’s feverish novel.
Although Levy’s hypnotic sense of voice throughout the novel traps oneself in a fever to keep reading until the very last word, an ailment as compelling as the mystery surrounding Rose’s legs, Hot Milk can test one’s temperament and prove more frustrating than enjoyable to read at moments. At times, it can very well feel as if Levy is playing a highly cryptic game of word associations with herself, in order to purposefully mislead the reader and to digress further into Sofia’s questioning mind.
Distracting from the many mysterious threads of the story, such as Rose’s cure, Ingrid’s true feelings and why exactly Gómez might be a “quack”, we instead are greeted (unwontedly) with a multitude of existential questions, rather than the concrete answers we crave, as Sofia ponders over essentially the meaning of her life and often humanity. When visiting a local market with her mother, Sofia stumbles across a stall, full of the domestications needed to make a home of your own. Miscellaneous items such as mops, buckets, pots and pans are on sale, amongst an air freshener shaped like a curvy, domestic goddess, wearing a polka-dot apron. After reading the instructions in English, naturally Sofia makes the leap to her Father’s homeland, as the curvaceous figure reminds her of 6000 BC Greece, where early fertility goddesses too had this same shapely frame.
“Did they suffer from hypochondria? Hysteria? Were they bold? Lame? Too full of the milk of human kindness?”
Levy’s word association takes the reader’s mind on a winding, twisting journey up Almeria’s mountainous roadways and back again, before we can even reach to put our seatbelts on, just as we’d got comfy in the seat of the car. Just as you believe you’re about to crack the code of Levy’s poetic, enigmatic prose, such digressions remind you that Hot Milk is sadly something you’re not going to valiantly tackle on a first read.
Levy doesn’t like to make it easy for us. Complex word association isn’t the only way she gleefully teases and misleads her readers. Seemingly arbitrary observations weave their way into Sofia’s internal dialogue, just as Ingrid embroiders “anything that surfaced in her mind.” Ingrid Bauer embroiders onto various garments a snake, a star, a cigar, the geometric print of lizard’s skin and seemingly the word “beloved” into a halter-neck top made for Sofia: “it was a rule she had made up for herself never to censor any word or image that revealed itself to her.” Ms. Levy also applies such a characteristic to Sofia Papastergiadis. At the novel’s opening, there are such observations as the on goings at the diving-school next door to Sofia’s rented beach house: “the reception area is being painted at the moment. Two Mexican men set to work every morning with giant tins of white paint” and the diving-school owner’s captive dog: “a howling, lean Alsatian dog is chained all day to an iron bar on the diving-school roof terrace.” This makes it seem as if Sofia is noting down everything that reveals itself to her. Before this digression, Sofia and Juan, the injury hut doctor, were just having a conversation. At the time of reading, these inconsistent digressions become frustrating to the reader: to be envisaging a compelling conversation between two people, to then get thrust into another setting confuses the leisurely reading brain. But then again, Levy doesn’t want to have her reader slumped back in an armchair, with a blanket around them whilst they read on a lazy Sunday: she wants us sweating in the desert with Sofia and her questioning mind, flying to Athens and making love to Juan and Ingrid and desperately seeking for a cure for Rose’s legs. From the beginning of Hot Milk, it’s clear that seemingly arbitrary observations are in fact there for us to take note of for future reference. Each and every word on each and every single page is a clue to solving the enigma of Hot Milk: we have to sleuth our way through the digressions, the word associations and the minute detail of every observation, a feat that not many authors can be acclaimed of.
Casting aside the doleful moans of a reader who is too accustomed to being spoon-fed the plot and resolution, it’s time we really, truly read the brilliance of Deborah Levy’s masterful talent. The beauty of her metaphorical gems quietly demand to be heard, just as the slight shard of glass above Sofia’s left eyebrow glistens against the harsh sun’s rays on the beach: glints of treasure. There is an absolute wonder that Levy finds in the everyday, illustrated through the density of the novel; layers of simple language and simple observations that have hidden beneath them a richness of meaning, just as the transparent medusas hiding in the depths of the sea breathe fresh menace into the novel’s fabric. Levy has a sheer talent for placing the most unusual of imagery, that in theory really shouldn’t work, and delicately weaving it into the body of the text to illuminate the inner workings of each of the characters, transfixing the reader. When discussing their arrival at the Gómez clinic, Sofia explains that her mother will “display her various symptoms to the consultant like an assortment of mysterious canapés,” and that Sofia herself will be “holding the tray.” Such light and playful imagery shouldn’t work with the grave situation of her mother’s mystery illness, but it so does. It is clear from the beginning that Rose seems to revel in her paralysis- there is some hidden condition here that doesn’t exactly link to the physical. It is also clear that Sofia is tied down to her mother: “her legs are my legs.” And it is clear that through Deborah Levy’s hypnotic story-telling, we will become hooked on her showing and not telling, her poetic language and astute wit right until the very last page.
We often feel as if we’re going around in extremely repetitive circles throughout Hot Milk. “Floating out of time in the most peculiar way”, there is a disturbing, dream-like quality to Levy’s prose that suggests how the past, present and future all seem to roll into one for Sofia and her mother: “I confess that I am often lost in all the dimensions of time, that the past sometimes feels nearer than the present and I often fear the future has already happened.” Trapped in an endless routine of symptoms, ailments and diagnoses, we grow to realise that her mother’s condition is a side effect of her past and that Sofia needs to stop allowing her mother’s present condition to affect her possibilities for a promising future. Dr. Gómez, also acting as a philosophical aid to Sofia’s journey, almost like a cringeworthy yet inspirational teenage Tumblr post, spurts gleams of motivation and truth throughout the novel: “you are using your mother like a shield to protect yourself from making a life.”
What may come as not so much of a surprise is that Levy’s previous novel, Swimming Home, struggled to find a publisher willing to take on a work deemed “too literary” for the contemporary marketplace, where of course profits mean more than well-written literature. Swimming Home covers much ground that Hot Milk also resurfaces on, such as the Mediterranean setting, the discussion of sexuality and the often strained relationships between family members. However, a publisher willing to take a chance on Levy’s frustratingly misleading, yet absolutely enchanting prose was And Other Stories, who are subscription-based and not-for-profit. Swimming Home then went on to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, so it’s also not a surprise that now Hot Milk has been picked up by Penguin Random House, proving that literary fiction still deserves a place in the contemporary landscape. Just last year, Hot Milk was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize – showing something of the widespread critical acclaim for Deborah Levy.
The joy of Hot Milk is down to witnessing the pure, undulated talent of Deborah Levy’s mastery with words and to journey with Sofia as she grows bolder, takes risks like hopping on a plane to visit the father who abandoned her many years ago, and begins to figure out the world that she is existing in. For those wishing for a happy ending, where loose ends are tied up and the myriad of existential questions provoked throughout are answered, just don’t wish for one. It would be unfair to close the book disappointed. Leave Hot Milk to the side for a while; then pick it back up and have another go when you’re ready. You’ll understand a whole lot more then. If you haven’t cracked the code after that, keep on reading until you do. You’ll pick up on little treasures you wouldn’t have noticed the first time around, teaching us the complete passion and thrill of literature. Deborah Levy’s enchanting talent deserves more than a first-read lukewarm reception.