This vivid follow-up to the Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home tackles identity, obsession and duty.
A little more than halfway through Deborah Levy’s hypnotic new novel, Hot Milk, its narrator, Sofia, throws a vase on the floor. She is in a rented beach house with her mother, Rose, in southern Spain – but if this sounds like a holiday, it’s not. Rose has remortgaged her flat to come here, to a mysterious clinic run by a man called Gómez: perhaps Gómez can cure the mysterious paralysis that confines Rose to a wheelchair and binds her daughter to her with chains of control and dependency. But there is no cure here – only strange pronouncements from a doctor who may very well be a quack; a chained alsatian on the beach that won’t stop barking; the relentless sun and a sea full of poisonous jellyfish.
The vase is a replica of an ancient Greek krater, a bogus reminder of Rose’s ex-husband, Sofia’s father, Christos Papastergiadis, who abandoned mother and daughter long ago. In the shards Sofia sees “the ruins that were once a whole civilisation”, an image of her mother’s shattered life. The broken vessel must be a sign, but of what? It is only one of many strange, lucid images that glitter through Levy’s novel, images that linger in the reader’s mind and won’t be chased away.
Levy’s last novel, Swimming Home, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012, having initially failed to find a publisher at all. Rejected for being “too literary” for the marketplace, apparently, it was taken up by And Other Stories, a subscription-based, not-for-profit publishing house. Since Hot Milkis being published by Penguin Random House, it seems fair to guess that the accolade of a Booker shortlisting has removed the presumed literary stain from this novel, which shares themes and obsessions with its predecessor. There is a sun-bleached, Mediterranean setting; explorations of troubled familial bonds, of the nature of sexuality, an examination of exile – and repeated motifs of incantatory language. “My love for my mother is like an axe,” Sofia says, more than once. “It cuts very deep.”
The early pages of Hot Milk are written with a deceptive realism. Sofia is in a bar on the beach; she drops her laptop and its screen shatters. But what sounds like a joke – “My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else” – turns out to be anything but. For Sofia’s trip to Spain with her mother marks a fracture in her life, a life that has been on hold because of her mother’s incessant demands and her confusion of her mother with herself. Sofia has been “sleuthing my mother’s symptoms for as long as I can remember”; when her mother limps painfully, so does Sofia, although she is only 25 and healthy. “My legs are her legs.”
And so the book evolves into an experiment with truth and identity. This isn’t a long novel, but it is dense in the way a poem is dense, rich with meaning poured into its simple language. There seem to be no other patients at the Gómez clinic, its outer walls built from marble so that it resembles “a spectral, solitary breast”. Sofia becomes obsessed with a German seamstress, Ingrid Bauer, “whose body is long and hard like an autobahn”, and who stitches her a shirt with the word “beloved” sewn into its fabric – unless, of course, she has embroidered another word entirely. When Sofia is stung by jellyfish, a young man called Juan tends to her injury; she takes him as her lover, too. After a while she abandons her mother and Ingrid to visit her estranged father with his new young wife and baby in Athens, a broken city, even more damaged than Spain by economic collapse; her father, a wealthy man, confines her to a storeroom with no window and a camp bed that collapses as soon as she lies down on it.
Sofia is floating through her life, with as much or as little control as the jellyfish – medusas in Spanish – which drive the tourists away from the white-hot beach. Back home she is a barista, but one with a degree in anthropology; memory was the subject of her abandoned PhD, and no wonder. Her father’s new family erases her own past; her mother’s illness, or imagined illness, devours it; and what is built in the present, with Ingrid, with Juan, with the unreadable Gómez, is unstable, could pour away like sand at any moment.
Hot Milk is a powerful novel of the interior life, which Levy creates with a vividness that recalls Virginia Woolf. The sense of Sofia’s life with her mother (or against her mother) is built through an accumulation of detail, a constellation of symbols and narrative bursts. But like a medusa, this novel has a transfixing gaze and a terrible sting that burns long after the final page is turned.