This book is weird.
Good weird! In her sixth novel, Hot Milk, Deborah Levy conveys an atmosphere of out-of-kilter surreality without ever violating the rules of realism. There’s no magic here, aside from the supernatural powers of peculiar prose.
The story is narrated by 25-year-old Sofia Papastergiadis (a mouthful of a surname that acquaintances can never pronounce), Greek on her father’s side, English on her mother’s. Sofia and her mother Rose have travelled from Britain to Andalusia in southern Spain to seek a cure for Rose’s obscure and baffling ailments. At 64, Sofia’s mother suffers from headaches, palpitations and intermittent paralysis. Occasionally this “career invalid” can walk; most of the time, she’s content to be ferried about in a wheelchair. She is alienated from her feet — indeed, “the UK doctors recently prescribed antidepressants for her feet”. Obviously, the question is whether the disorder is all in the mother’s head.
Rose is quirky, obstreperous — likeably unlikeable. She is bursting with rage and resentment. Doubtless she’s always had a proclivity for complaint, though the irascible humour was boosted by the desertion of Sofia’s father when she was five. The husband was never replaced. Worse, he returned to Greece and married a woman 40 years his junior, with whom the 69-year-old has had a new daughter. Thus Sofia has been replaced.
Sofia is more amorphous. Achieving quite a feat of memory and imagination for an author in her mid-fifties, Levy gives convincing voice to the foundering, floundering sensation of the mid-twenties — the experimentation, the trying on of hats, the clinging to parents in the very throes of trying to let them go. Sofia has a degree in anthropology, but has been working as a waitress in a Yorkshire café. She is unhealthily caught up in her mother’s inexplicable suffering. Ever badgered to bring the woman what will always prove “the wrong sort of water”, Sofia is the one with good reason to burst with rage and resentment. Rose is a gangster, she says, “who is mugging my life”.
As the legitimacy of the mother’s illness is unresolved, the legitimacy of the doctor whom the two women have sought out for a cure is likewise up for grabs. Dr Gómez is part physician, part psychiatrist, part mystic, and surely part quack. He shares privately with Sofia about her mother, “It is the vitality she puts into not walking that concerns me.” Gómez is either uncannily wise, a shyster or both.
When the doctor cuts off her medication, Rose awaits withdrawal symptoms “like a lover, nervous and excited”. Although stimulated by Gómez’s attentions, Rose is mostly sniffy. “I have been robbed, Mr Gometh,” she announces. “I could have gone to Devon for less than one hundred pounds and sat by the sea with a packet of biscuits on my lap, patting one of many English dogs. You are more expensive than Devon. I am frankly, disappointed.”
“Disappointment is unpleasant,” he agrees with deft deflection. “You have my sympathy.”
Treating Sofia, too, as if she were his patient, Gómez assigns her the task of stealing a fish — to make her “bolder”. When Sofia does as she’s told, her successful theft of a dorado from the village fishmonger works a treat. Sofia becomes bold as could be.
Thus the narrator has affairs with the young man who administers salve to jellyfish-sting victims on the beach, and also with a tall, striking German woman named Ingrid. But Hot Milk is specifically not an exploration of conflicted sexuality. With an appealingly contemporary lightness, it doesn’t seem to matter much whether Sofia beds boys or girls. When Ingrid gives her new lover a blouse, Sofia is thrilled to find that the German has embroidered the silk with the word “Beloved”. But later — I told you this book is odd — she discovers the embroidery reads instead, “Beheaded”.
The setting of the bleak, underemployed Spain of post-2008 — hot, dry, and hopeless — and Sophia’s delightfully woeful departure to visit her father in Athens, where the referendum on the EU’s austerity deal is under way, further provide the novel with an aptly off-track sensation. We are keenly aware of being on a continent that has lost its way. Europe’s stasis and lack of confidence in the future meld with the narrator’s own claustrophobic sense of having landed in an emotional cul de sac.
Levy’s writing is strong — Sofia is “deformed with embarrassment”, or Ingrid’s body is “long and hard like an autobahn”. The prose is often jagged, abrupt, even savage, but the narration is leavened with a touch of drollness, and I wouldn’t want to suggest this novel is a big, dark drag. It’s entertaining and reads swiftly. But it’s also strange.
That strangeness — intriguing strangeness, hard-to-put-your-finger-on strangeness — is what marks this novel as noteworthy. We’ve all read countless books about mother-daughter relationships. It’s challenging to approach that subject matter one more time in a manner that brings something new to the table. With the help of a truly offbeat premise, Levy has enlivened the age-old tussle — asking, as Sofia poses plaintively about Rose, “How can I protect her, and how can I protect myself from her?”
Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£12.99, 224 pages
Lionel Shriver’s new novel ‘The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047’ is published by Borough Press in May
Illustration by David McConochie