Restless, listless, sleepless and penniless, Sofia Papastergiadis, the heroine of Deborah Levy’s gorgeous new novel, “Hot Milk,” feels about as miserable and alarmed as it is possible to feel. We meet her just after she drops her laptop on the floor, shattering both the screen and the illusion of well-being.
“My laptop has all my life in it,” she says. “If it is broken, so am I.”
At 25, Sofia is a half-English, half-Greek anthropology student who works in a London cafe called the Coffee House but mostly tends to the petulant demands of her mother, Rose. The two have come to Spain seeking a last-ditch cure for the constellation of bizarre and possibly psychosomatic ailments that plague Rose, including, perhaps, an inability to walk.
Sofia has her own ailments, starting with her awful relationship with Rose, but most of them are psychological: disaffection, insecurity, fear, confusion, anxiety, a sense that she is in danger of floating out of herself, Bowie-style, “in the most peculiar way.” The title, “Hot Milk,” evokes the charged connection between mother and child and also sounds a bit like “hot mess,” which many of its characters are.
At its heart, the book is a tale of how Sofia uses strength of will, rigorous self-examination and her anthropological skills to understand and begin to repair things that are holding her back. She learns to stand up for herself, to take risks, even to behave badly. She becomes bolder.
Perhaps this sounds tiresome or conventional, a typical coming-of-age story. It’s not.
What makes the book so good is Ms. Levy’s great imagination, the poetry of her language, her way of finding the wonder in the everyday, of saying a lot with a little, of moving gracefully among pathos, danger and humor and of providing a character as interesting and surprising as Sofia. It’s a pleasure to be inside Sofia’s insightful, questioning mind.
“I am living a vague, temporary life in the equivalent of a shed on the fringe of a village,” she says. “What has stopped me from building a two-story house in the center of the village?” Watching a young woman offer a cigar to her husband one evening in Athens, where she travels briefly to confront the father who abandoned her years before, she says: “My problem is that I want to smoke the cigar and for someone else to light it. I want to blow out smoke. Like a volcano. Like a monster."
As with her earlier, equally accomplished book “Swimming Home,” a febrile tale of desire and betrayal, Ms. Levy has set a seemingly simple story against a backdrop thrumming with low-key menace and sly, dry humor, sometimes in the same paragraph. “Hot Milk” takes place sometime after the 2008 financial crash, and there is a sense of imminent catastrophe. People are unemployed. The young man who tends to Sofia’s jellyfish sting in the “injury hut” and who will become her lover is studying for a master’s degree in philosophy but “considered himself lucky to have a summer job on the beach.”
There is menace, too, in the sea, which is teeming with nasty stinging jellyfish known as medusas. (The book is full of references to Greek mythology, but it wears them lightly.) Then there’s the wacko Dr. Gómez, who runs a Spanish health clinic. His unconventional approach to Rose’s illness includes taking her to lunch; having her to write down a list of her fears; forcing her to throw away her medication; and giving her a car to use, even though she says she has no feeling in her feet and cannot operate the pedals.
Anyone who has been a mother or a daughter knows how fraught the relationship can be at its worst, a toxic dance of power, guilt, competitiveness, dependency and resentment. The relationship at the heart of “Hot Milk,” that between Sofia and Rose, is as dysfunctional as they come. “My love for my mother is like an ax,” Sofia explains. “It cuts very deep.”
Sometimes her mother excoriates her; other times she grabs the boundary between them and tosses it into the sea. “You have good hands,” she declares, as Sofia dutifully gives her a massage. “If only you could cut your hands off and leave them with me while you go to the beach all day.” She’s also prone to making fantastically narcissistic remarks, for those of us who collect them. Hearing about some newborn kittens, she asks, “I take it the mother is in good health after the birth?” (“I noted she had not asked after the babies,” Sofia says.)
Most of us have been through periods when, like Sofia, we cannot silence the punishing, constantly assessing voice in our heads, the one that turns everything that happens, every encounter, every thought, every feeling into a referendum on our lives as a whole. It’s wearing to be perpetually taking your own mental temperature, to be always re-evaluating.
So it’s inspiring to see Sofia begin to find perspective, to feel empathy and understanding toward others. These include Ingrid, the sexy woman whom she also begins sleeping with; Dr. Gómez’s oddly lazy daughter, a nurse in his clinic; and even her father’s new wife, who has troubles of her own. For one thing, she is 40 years younger than Sofia’s father.
As for the amusing Dr. Gómez, he may be an awful clinician, but he’s prone to sudden and surprisingly apt observations. “You are using your mother like a shield to protect yourself from making a life,” he says. Later he declares that he has lost interest in finding out what is wrong with Rose and is more concerned with Sofia. “My question is this,” he says. “What is wrong with you?” How moving it is to watch the vivid, courageous Sofia try to figure that out.