I just finished reading Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, and I have emerged from its pages feeling sunburned.
The novel is set in Almería, in southeast Spain, on the Mediterranean Sea. It’s an unfriendly landscape, with blazing sun, burning sand, and harsh salt. There are sweltering plastic greenhouses, unlovely gas canisters lining the beach, and endless jellyfish—medusas, as the locals call them—lurking in the water. The place is evoked strongly—blisters and all.
The novel’s narrator is twenty-five-year-old Sophie (called Sofia while in Spain), who has accompanied her mother Rose to Almería (from their home in England), so that Rose can seek treatment at a private clinic run by the enigmatic Dr. Gómez, with the assistance of his equally inscrutable daughter Julieta, whom he calls “Nurse Sunshine.”
Rose’s mysterious medical complaint has manifested itself over the course of Sophie’s lifetime as intermittent paralysis of the legs and feet. Rose also suffers from (or claims to) myriad allergies, insomnia, indigestion, heart palpitations, migraines, chronic pain, and more. Sophie performs all of the necessary daily duties for her mother—she is her cook, waitress, cleaner, and, most crucially, her legs. She fetches water for her mother constantly, but never the right kind. Sophie has developed an intermittent limp of her own from moderating her gait to assist her mother; she tells someone at one point, “I’ve been looking after her since I was five.”
The core of this novel is Sophie’s desperation. She has reached a breaking point with this unhealthy entanglement with her mother, a woman who is neither honest nor kind. She is certainly not interested in Sophie’s best interests. Rose is, quite possibly, a predator of a very unique kind.
I regarded Gómez as my research assistant. I have been on the case all my life and he is just starting. There are no clear boundaries between victory and defeat when it comes to my mother’s symptoms. As soon as he makes a diagnosis, she will grown another one to confound him.”
After a lifetime of devotion, the cracks are beginning to show in Sophie. She is becoming increasingly reckless and erratic. She is aware that something has to change.
This is another book that I was inspired to read by listening to Harriett Gilbert talk about it on the BBC podcast A Good Read. Harriett notes that while Sophie is technically an adult, Hot Milk is in fact a coming-of-age story. While in Almería, Sophie becomes involved in the lives of several people—there is Ingrid, the Amazonian blonde who intrigues and allures her; Matthew, Ingrid’s smarmy boyfriend; Juan, the student at the injury hut who tends to Sophie’s many jellyfish stings; Pablo, the horrid man who mistreats his dog; and Nurse Sunshine herself. All of these relationships provide both a mirror and a catalyst for Sophie, who has lived far too long in an insular bubble with Rose.
My favourite aspect of this novel was Sophie’s tendency to regard everyone and everything as a potential field study. She has a master’s degree in anthropology, although she has had to abandon her PhD studies to take care of Rose. Seeing life through an anthropological lens allows Sophie to keep herself removed, to let her observations of people run free, and to turn her critical brain onto herself and to Rose. We can see that this is how Sophie has made it this far, but right from the beginning of the novel, this detachment is faltering, and Sophie’s tightly reigned emotions are starting to escape.
Not only emotion but time as well is running amok in this book. The editor in me noticed from the get-go that the tenses switch around willy nilly; sometimes Sophie narrates in present tense, sometimes in past tense. 44 pages in, I was rewarded with this paragraph:
Time has shattered, it’s cracking like my lips. When I note down ideas for field studies, I don’t know whether I’m writing in the past or present tense or both of them at the same time.”
This book is almost entirely inside of Sophie’s head, and she is a rewarding narrator—observant, unusual, a little bit unstable. As Harriett notes in A Good Read, this is a book where nothing is as expected. And that includes Sophie’s thought processes and actions, which are unpredictable, sometimes devastating, and sometimes unnerving. The ending is pitch-perfect and both surprising and inevitable, almost like the resolution to a good mystery novel.
This was my first experience reading Deborah Levy, but it won’t be my last.
I am far away from shore but not lost enough. I must return home but I have nowhere to go that is my own, no work, no money, no lover to welcome me back. When I flipped over I saw them in the water, the medusas, slow and calm like spaceships, delicate and dangerous. I felt a lashing, burning pain just under my left shoulder and started to swim back to shore. It was like being skinned alive as I was stung over and over again. When I limped across the sand towards the injury hut on the beach, the bearded student seemed to be expecting me because he was waiting with his tube of special ointment in his hand. I turned around to show him my shoulder and heard him say, “That is bad, very baaaad.” He stood behind me and his fingertips were on the stings. It was agony but he was touching me very lightly, moving the ointment in circles, and he spoke in a voice that started off soothing, like a mother, perhaps, I don’t know.”