Review by Sarah E. Parker.
I have more of an ear for the language of symptoms and side effects, because that is my mother’s language. Perhaps it is my mother tongue. (135)
Neither a god nor my father is the major plot in my own life. I am anti the major plots. (143).
Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk (Bloomsbury, 2016), shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, is a deliciously sensual novel that reads more like a sustained poem than a typical narrative. The protagonist is Sofia Papastergiadis, a 25-year-old woman who has abandoned her PhD in anthropology to take care of her ailing mother, Rose.
[Editor’s note: the following paragraph contains spoilers for plot elements. Some readers may wish to skip to the third paragraph and read to the end.]
Rose’s symptoms have baffled all of her doctors in the U.K., so she mortgages her house (as Sofia notes, her daughter’s inheritance) to come up with the necessary €25,000 to visit the eccentric Dr. Gomez, a specialist in Spain who is reputed to have had great success with enigmatic illnesses. Throughout the book it is hard to tell whether he is profoundly insightful or a terrible quack. When she is not taking begrudging yet meticulous care of her mother, Sofia spends most of her time lolling around on the Spanish beaches. There she meets an alluring German seamstress named Ingrid and the two have a love affair. She also hooks up with a Spanish M.A. student who feels grateful to have a summer job tending to the jellyfish stings of swimmers. Sofia has an absentee Greek father who abandoned the family when she was young. She journeys to Athens see him for the first time in over a decade and meet his new young wife (only four years older than Sofia herself) and their baby daughter. Sofia’s father refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing in abandoning his first family, and despite great personal wealth offers Sofia no financial assistance to help her return to school and complete her degree.
Neglected by her father, Sofia also has the uneasy sense that she is taking on her mother’s burdens and even physiological symptoms rather than pursuing her own life and ambitions. The familial crises in which the older generation abandons their responsibility to the younger generation suggests an allegory for the way that the E.U.’s economic burdens have fallen most heavily on the young, who suffered appalling rates of unemployment following the economic crisis of 2008. This message is not heavy-handed, however, and serves as a concrete backdrop to an otherwise dreamlike story. Sofia’s frustrations and melancholic torpor as well as her sensual awareness take center stage, pervading the novel and haunting the reader well after the end of the book.
Levy is a prolific author, who has written six novels in addition to many short stories, essays, and plays. Her novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012, putting her on the international map, but she has been contributing a complex and incandescent feminist voice to literary culture for several decades. Like the “hot milk” of its title, this book is both rich and searing. In each sentence Levy masterfully evokes the alternating sense of comfort and pain that characterizes both family dynamics and love affairs.
Hot Milk opens with an epigraph from Hélène Cixous’ essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” a feminist manifesto calling on women to write. Indeed the medusa (the word for “jellyfish” in Romance languages) figures as a consistent theme throughout the novel. The beach in Spain where the story takes place offers tempting but dangerous swimming opportunities because of the eerily beautiful and blisteringly painful medusas that fill the sea. For Cixous, Levy, and Sofia, Medusa also symbolizes an exquisitely perverse kind of feminist power. According to Greek myth, she is made monstrous because of her alluring sexuality, and she has a power that threatens. Much of Sofia’s drive and eventual courage throughout the novel seem to come from “the poison from the medusa sting” she suffers in the novel’s opening scene, as if it “had in turn released some venom that was lurking inside me” (9).
Reading Hot Milk at first reminded me of trying to read Kafka’s short stories in German when I was new to that language. I remember coming together with my discussion group, feeling that I surely must not have understood anything because the prose was so surreal and bizarre, and then slowly coming to realize that my confusion was part of the point. Levy similarly throws us into a world that seems unreal and yet also filled with an undeniably painful physical reality, just like our most vivid dreams. Despite Hot Milk’s relentless sensuality and captivating story, it is not a novel to be devoured. If you are the type of reader who loves to savor language and find books worth rereading, you should pick up a copy of Levy’s latest poetic tour de force.
Sarah Parker is Assistant Professor of English at Jacksonville University, Florida where she teaches courses in Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, and medical humanities. Her current research focuses on early modern medical treatises on popular errors. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UNC-Chapel Hill and MAs from UNC-Chapel Hill and Middlebury College.