Sofia and her mother, Rose, have arrived in Almeria on the south coast of Spain, both seeking answers: Sofia to stop drifting, to find a focus, a reason, a lover. Rose meanwhile would like the famous Dr. Gomez and his assistant Nurse Sunshine to solve the mystery of why her legs have stopped working…
Having never read anything by Deborah Levy before, ‘Hot Milk’ was a revelation: a hazy, woozy read which tantelizes and teases. It is a hot, sticky novel in which the character of a small Spanish town looms large and those who have visited such places will recognise immediately: I swear I have seen the diving school dog, the fate of which weaves throughout the book!
It is a heady, strange brew of a novel, where nothing is straightforward, everything not quite right:
Ingrid was crouching in an alleyway near the pizzeria that is owned by a Romanian taxi driver. At first I couldn’t work out what she was doing and then I saw she was holding a miniature bow and arrow. It was so tiny it could fit in the palm of her hand. She was aiming the arrow at a lizard that had just flashed out of a crack in the wall. The arrow hit the wall and fell to the ground.’
As I read, another novel came to mind – ‘The Driver’s Seat’ by Muriel Spark – in which a lone woman leaves her job and flies south for a holiday and a search for…what? Like Spark’s Lise, Sophie is looking for something: a remedy for her mother? A lover? Her father? And, like Spark’s novel, the sinister is always there, tickling, itching to reveal itself:
‘Open it, Papa. It’s not a severed head or anything.’ As soon as I said that, I didn’t quite believe it. Maybe the diving school dog hadn’t been drowned after all and Rose cut off its head and sent it by registered post to Athens’
‘Hot Milk’ is psychological in nature, twisting and turning at the whims of…who? Time bends. Sophie finds splinters of glass in her eyebrow and a lover, Ingrid,who embroiders ‘Beloved’ onto her sun-top…or is it ‘Beheaded’? A nameless narrator watches a Greek girl whose accent is English: Who is the narrator and who are they watching?
But this is not a novel of solutions. It is a novel haunted with jellyfish which sting and lacerate our heroine. It is a novel laced with a wry humour:
‘So you married your Greek man?’
‘Yes, for eleven years we waited for a child. And when we at last conceived and our daughter was five, Christos was summoned by the voice of God to find a younger woman in Athens’
Levy also excels at the relationship between mothers and daughters. She writes Sophie and Rose like lovers spurned by the same idol: united in their loss, bonded through love and familiarity yet hating and despising for the freedoms not granted, petty rivalries unresolved, victories denied. As Freud taught us, such feelings can be almost murderous in their power…
‘Hot Milk’ is a dream novel which maintains a dreamlike logic and resists all temptations to reveal and clarify. But like all the best dreams, this matters not a jot, because it has already lured you in and left you with an overwhelming desire never to leave.
Possibly my favourite novel of the year, so far.