Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

“One is not born a chameleon, one becomes one.”

Image result for hot milk deborahHuzzah! After what feels like months of being unable to read fiction, of picking books up and abandoning them after 50 or so pages, I was beginning to believe that my relationship with fiction was limited to books I’d read before. I wasn’t entirely hopeful when I picked up Hot Milk, but those concerns were soon blasted away. Within the first few pages, in fact. Furthermore, I devoured the book so quickly I had time to read it again and read some of the Theogony, which I didn’t think of as ‘cheating’ at the time, largely because I found it so spectacularly boring I ended up putting it aside anyway and listening to a little Billie Holliday instead. And disappointingly, the reference to Medusa was so brief as to be considerably less enlightening than the Wikipedia page, and as I don’t consider Wikipedia cheating this opened up a bit of a dilemma as to what forms of reading constitute cheating and which don’t, which as yet I have found no landing on. However, irrespective of which reading is cheating and which isn’t, Hot Milk was a clever and entertaining read which has reaffirmed my faith in fiction and I could easily have read it a third time, but even I thought that a little excessive. Huzzah!

Hot Milk tells the story of Sofia Papastergiardis and her mother, Rose, a woman mysteriously afflicted with ailments no one seems to be able to cure. Sofia has brought her mother, at considerably expense, to Almeria to a clinic run by the famous Dr Gomez in a desperate attempt to find a cure. Rose, it seems, cannot walk. Except when she can. Her legs are numb, except when a fly lies on them. Sofia is young yet she has spent most of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s illness, having cared for her since her father – a Greek shipowner – abandoned them, suffered a religious conversion and married a woman not much older than Sofia with whom he has a baby. Sofia herself is abandoned to her mother’s illness, but she has also abandoned her studies and much of everything else it seems. She has a first-class degree, a Masters and is working on a PHD in cultural anthropology, but at the same time she is working as a waitress in an artisan coffee house back in Hackney and her PHD languishes unfinished. Identity, how we define ourselves, underlines a large part of this story. Sofia retains her Greek name, despite it being difficult to pronounce and spell, yet she is as English as her Yorkshire Mum and she speaks little Greek, seeing it as the language of abandonment. She is an anthropologist, but when Juan, the beach attendant who treats her jellyfish stings, asks her to fill out a questionnaire which includes her occupation she writes ‘waitress’. Juan himself is a philosophy student, yet spends his days tending jellyfish stings and some of his evenings tending Sofia, as they enter into a sexual, if not romantic, relationship. Her mother, Rose, is both an invalid and not; she is fragile yet formidable and the water is never right. Dr. Gomez is both a renowned doctor, commanding a £25,000 fee, and a ‘quack’; his daughter Julieta is referred to as ‘Nurse Sunshine’ yet this is not her name but rather a name her father attached to her when she stopped smiling after her mother died. Everywhere you look there are people being things that they are not and not being things that they are. And Sofia, the cultural anthropologist, begins to ask what all of this identity framing is for, as she describes here when encountering the woman, who she had thought was a man, who sells watermelons:

“I showered and oiled my hair and then walked over to the plaza to buy a watermelon from the woman in the truck who I had first thought was a man. She was sitting in the driver’s seat with her young grandson sprawled on her lap. They were eating figs. Purple dusty figs, the colour of twilight. She told the boy to choose me a melon, which he did, and when she took the money she put in a cotton wallet that was strapped around the waist of her black dress. She had taken off her sandals and placed them in the compartment of the truck door. I noticed a ball of bone growing like a small island on the side of her right foot. Her arms were brown and strong, he cheek-bones sun-lashed, her hips wide as she moved to make space for her grandson when he clambered back on to her lap. Her body. Who is her body supposed to please? What is it for and is it ugly or is it something else? She silently pressed another fig into the boy’s hand, resting her chin on her head. She was a farmer and grandmother running her own economy with her money bag pressed against her womb.”

Medusas are also everywhere, along with Greek mythology. Medusa is the name of the jellyfish which stings Sofia, and Sofia herself is a ‘medusa’, a woman who transforms, who is transformed, by her illicit relationship with Poseidon (or, perhaps, Juan) from an ordinary, if beautiful woman to a ‘monster’. Sofia becomes stung with desire, though it is not her desire for Juan which triggers this but rather her desire for Ingrid Bauer, a German woman living in Almeria, a woman who embroiders unique designs on cast off clothes, a woman who wears men’s boots and blue velvet shorts, who has long, blonde braids and rides a horse, who carries around a tiny bow and arrow with which she shoots lizards so she can copy their design. Ingrid is a ‘big bad sister’ and Sofia is in her thrall:

“I am studying Ingrid Bauer’s bow and arrow. It is magnifying in my mind until it becomes a weapon that can wound its prey. The bow is shaped like lips. The arrow’s tip is sharp. Why am I a monster to Ingrid? She thinks of me as some kind of creature. The tip of the arrow is aimed at my heart.”

Ingrid, of course, is our Athena; she is fierce and ruthless, adept at crafts, she’s a giver of olive trees, she is wise and shrewd and she helps Sofia to become bold. Her affection for Sofia blows hot and cold, she punishes Sofia for her desire, yet she returns it. In Greek mythology Medusa was a priestess of Athena, sworn to celibacy, yet when she slept with Poseidon (in some mythologies this is suggested as a rape, in others a consensual act) she is turned into a monster by Athena as punishment. Here Sofia, or ‘Zoffie’ as Ingrid always refers to her, becomes consumed by her desire for Ingrid, it makes her ‘monstrous’ and yet in many ways she is freed by it, emboldened. Yet Sofia, too, flees from it. She flees to her father in Athens, leaving her mother in Gomez’s care. Yet her father is not particularly welcoming and Sofia soon realises that whilst her step-mother, Alexandra, is another formidable woman, as her mother was, her father is in hiding, trying to forget both his older daughter and his first wife. When Sofia returns she finds herself on a path to confrontation with her mother, a path which leads her back into her living her own life.

Needless to say, Hot Milk is a complicated, fascinating and very clever book. I found myself researching Greek mythology in an attempt try to unpick the links there, and there’s a hefty dose of anthropology which has no doubt escaped much of my attention. But what is more important than any of these things is how entertaining a book this is. The characters are well drawn and realised, they are all monstrous in their own ways, defying the clichés that could too easily form their identities which they are all attempting to escape. In one section, Sofia refers to her boundaries being ‘made from sand’ and her relationship with Ingrid being one in which Ingrid ‘made of me the monster she felts herself to be’ and there are monsters everywhere, but also none. The writing is sparky, in places it is very funny and the characters are sharp with each other and themselves. In the end Sofia realises that she is a slave to her mother because she chooses to be, and yet she is also a monster to her mother, much as her mother is a slave to her and a monster to her. We are what we choose to be, but we do not have to inhabit that choice. Sofia begins to make different choices; as Gomez says right at the beginning, as Sofia is examining a stuffed monkey Gomez keeps in his consulting room “I think, Sofia Irina, that you would liked to free our little castrated primate so he can scamper around the room and read my early editions of Cervantes. But first you must free yourself.”

Hot Milk has certainly freed me. It has freed me from a burgeoning poor relationship with fiction and reminded me that my relationship with everything is exactly what I choose it to be. I am bound by my identity only as much as I perceive it to bind me. Like Sofia, perhaps, our boundaries can be more like sand, less rigid, perhaps they are not for other people so much as they are for ourselves and maybe, just maybe, we can all afford to be a little more monstrous when following our desires.



About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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7 Responses to Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

  1. JacquiWine says:

    Welcome back to the world of fiction – in some ways, it must feel like a huge relief.

    Funnily enough, I was looking at this in a bookshop the other day, partly on account of the summery cover and partly because of my interest in Levy as a writer. (I really enjoyed her Swimming Home a few years ago.) This does indeed sound fascinating – a multi-layered book. Great review as ever, Belinda.

    • bookbii says:

      I am hugely relieved Jacqui, I was beginning to think that I would simply not be able to read fiction anymore except on repeat, but perhaps I just needed the right book (and possibly the right mood). I can definitely recommend this book, it’s a strong companion to Swimming Home (which I also enjoyed). Levy is a formidable writer.

  2. Glad to hear that you’re over your fiction reading block, Belinda. I wonder which novel you’ll read next.

  3. SimplyMe says:

    “My relationship with everything is exactly what I choose it to be. I am bound by my identity only as much as I perceive it to bind me.” I think these two statements of yours reveal a primary function of fiction — it facilitates exploration of identity. Intriguingly, simultaneously, reading fiction often tell us we are not alone, those “aha” moments of recognition of self/other.
    In a similar vein, I think categories, such as fiction and non-fiction, while conceptually useful tools, are nothing more or less than just that. All life, all thought, all experience is subject to change or, as you phrased it, ” Like Sofia, perhaps, our boundaries can be more like sand, less rigid….”
    Congratulations on both the break from reading fiction and on the return.

    • bookbii says:

      You make an interesting point Jan. In many non-English language speaking cultures there is no differential between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ they are all just stories. It is fascinating, I think, how sometimes language and custom forces a particular viewpoint, but you’re right our boundaries definitely need to be more like sand 🙂

  4. I am currently reading this novel, and I agree that Deborah Levy writes books that can be appreciated in many levels: the novel is both very clever and also entertaining. 🙂

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