Deborah Levy‘s Hot Milk is the third of my dips into last year’s Booker Prize shortlist and, as a hot favourite prior to the announcement of Paul Sellers‘s win, I had high hopes. This is a powerful, literary novel (though its references are not worn as badges of honour), and it is easy to see why it made the shortlist. In particular, it’s good to see strong, confident writing from a woman recognised at such a level.
Weighing in at just 218 pages, this is a short novel (actually, it is probably a collection of earlier short stories written into one tale) about individual people’s ‘struggle to live in all the dimensions between forgetting and remembering’ (p. 201), with the shadows cast by events being long and, sometimes, ill-understood. Levy’s unifying theme, nevertheless, is the power of maternal love and the strength of the mother-daughter bond in which Sophie, a 25-year old post-graduate currently working as a barista in a London coffee house, travels to Spain with her mother, Rose, to a clinic in search of a cure for an unexplained (or inexplicable) illness in her mother. It immediately becomes clear – the screen of Sophie’s laptop, containing ‘all my life’, is shattered on a concrete floor in the opening paragraph of the novel – that it may equally be Sophie who is in need of a cure and that, from the framing quote at the outset, ‘It’s up to you to break the old circuits’, that her cure, at least, may lie in her own psychological make-up. The link is made perfect by the origin of the quote – a 2012 article on feminist writing by Helene Cixous entitled (in translation) ‘The Laugh of the Medusa‘ – making an allegorical appearance in the opening chapter as Sophie is stung while out swimming by jellyfish (= medusa in Spanish, and a noted symbol of female rage although rage itself is not a major theme of Hot Milk). The physical appearance of the clinic, and the graffiti which appears on it, provides further source material for Levy’s themes of maternal and wider female sexuality and psychoanalysis.
Set in 2015 austerity-ridden Spain, and encompassing a visit to Greece by Sophie to visit her absent Greek father, Hot Milk is of its time, containing more than a cursory glance at austerity politics (Rose’s medicines are first withdrawn at the Spanish clinic, and then re-instated at a general hospital): not so much Levy’s view that the patient needs to ‘keep taking the medicine’ as a comment on political reactions to and developments in the crisis in both Greece and Spain. This is not a novel about the post-2008 crisis, but the author’s ability to incorporate such references adds colour as well as bringing the novel a little more to life. There is, throughout the work, a sense of collapse, of people clinging on to what is left of shattered lives in the face of continuing impending (economic) disaster.
Levy’s prose is economic in its construction – she is not, it seems, one for flowery phrases – but, nevertheless, this is a richly written tale which is likely to repay a second read to revisit the themes more fully in the light of awareness as to its end. The heat of the Spanish sun, and the tempers that it provokes not least in those not used to heat, and the search for a variety of forms of sustaining coolness, bring a welcome contextuality in which Levy’s themes run their course. The many people who pass through Sophie’s life on her Spanish and Greek sojourns are rather sketched, although this acts to heighten the characterisation of Sophie herself and her own struggles. Words and phrases are repeated in different contexts, creating motifs that deliver both dissonance and echoes as we grapple (indeed, sometimes in a most peculiar way) for shards of meaning as well as dimension. Levy can over-reach herself with metaphors that, on occasion, bash the reader over the head rather than drawing him or her on but this is a minor criticism of style rather than of substance. Similarly, the regular repetition of the medusa theme – extending to snakes, and decapitations – in Levy’s exploration of female sexuality does become a little wearing.
Ultimately, however, the biggest criticism is that the book rather fizzles out during, and after, Sophie’s visit to her father and his new family in Athens and the more or less single paragraph closing denouement comes, it might seem, as a relief more to the author than to Rose and Sophie. Conversely, how in the light of that denouement these two take their relationship forward might form an interesting future novel(la), although I suspect at this juncture that Levy might well not be pitching herself as its author.