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January 5, 2017

Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy

For me, the experience of reading Deborah Levy is a disorienting one, nothing immediately obscure and yet nothing is familiar either. Or maybe it’s that everything familiar is made a bit foreign under her curious lens. I have a copy of her non-fiction book Things I Don’t Want to Know, and while I’ve read it at least three times and even like it, I’ve never finished it. And I wonder if some of my difficulty comes down to her being South African—I had a similar problem with Katherine Mansfield; do writers writing in English from the Southern Hemisphere always read a little upside downly? Even though Levy is South African by way of England and for many decades, and certainly has an English sensibility too. I read her acclaimed novel Swimming Home in 2012, and don’t remember anything about it —possibly because I was eight weeks pregnant when I read it, an experience which never does much for me as a reader. Although my review reveals that I felt the same about it as I do about her latest book, Hot Milk: “At its murky depths…the trick isn’t to underline just what is significant in the text, but instead to understand that everything is.” Except that I went on to say that Swimming Home wasn’t immediately satisfying, but oh, Hot Milk was. Oh so much. An entirely excellent way to start off my 2017 reading year.

I wasn’t really sure though until about two thirds of the way in that with this book I was on solid literary ground. Where was the method, I wondered, in so much weirdness? Under-socialized daughter who happens to be a trained anthropologist (non-practising) arrives in Spain with her hypochondriac mother who claims to suffer from paralysis in her legs, at least sometimes. Daughter Sofia takes her mother to bizarre clinic with eccentric doctor, and embarks upon affairs with both the man who works in the injury hut on the beach (tending to her jellyfish stings, jellyfish in local parlance referred to as “medusas”) and an uber-cool German seamstress who embroiders a word onto a silk shirt and gives it to Sofia who thinks the word is “beloved.” The notion of being beloved empowers Sofia to be emboldened—and she flees to Greece to see her estranged father who lives there with his wife (an EU economist who is a disciple of austerity, who is just a few years older than Sofia) and their very young child. And it is here where she has an epiphany:

“‘My father only does things that are to his advantage,”‘ Sofia tells her father’s wife.

“She stares at me as if I am crazy. And then she laughs. ‘Why would he do things that are not to his advantage?'” 

This being a novel by Deborah Levy, what happens next isn’t entirely straightforward, but the entire narrative with all its different components (“When I started to write Hot Milk,” she says, “I asked myself: what are the dominant stories in 2014? And I thought they were debt, austerity, big pharma, migration, sexual identity and illness.”) But the brilliant thing is how they all come together, like stars in a galaxy, the image the introduces the novel, although the galaxy is on Sophia’s screensaver instead of in the sky—and also fractured into pieces because she’s dropped her laptop on a concrete floor and shattered the screen. Woven throughout the prose are lyrics from “Space Oddity” and David Bowie and his music (and his image) turn up through the book. And then the scene in which Sophia finds her mother’s footprint in the sand, as monumental as those discovered by another anthropologist, Mary Leakey in 1976—what they reveal about where we come from, who we are—is beautiful and awful

This is a novel about mothers and daughters like you’ve never read before, about selfishness and selflessness, about sea and sky, about all those things that are connected. Or not: “The tendrils of the jellyfish in limbo, like something cut loose, a placenta, a parachute, a refugee severed from its place of origin.”

Or someone sitting in a tin can, just say. Far above the world.

3 thoughts on “Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy”

  1. Sarah says:

    So glad you liked it. I agree she’s disorientating, but that’s part of what I love! It feels very deliberate to me — and in my mind seems partly related to the fact that she’s a playwright too — there’s a boldness, and spareness, and a sense of theatre somehow. It’s a feeling I get reading Iris Murdoch too — that the veracity is achieved without too much concern for believability. As you say “a novel about mothers and daughters like you’ve never read before”. (Though the Ferrante link, suggested to me by a reviewer on the back cover of my copy, I did think was relevant: that territory of the mother’s body and the simultaneous repulsion & almost obsession with it.)

    1. Kerry says:

      Have you read The Lost Daughter? They seemed quite linked, these books.

      1. Sarah says:

        Yes! And yes!

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