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Hot Milk coverI started reading Deborah Levy’s latest novel, Hot Milk, as I’d liked two of her previous books, Swimming Home and Things I Don’t Want To Know. Swimming Home is an unusual, dream-like novel about what happens when a strange young woman arrives and disrupts a family holiday in France. For me, it explored the different forms depression can take and the impact historical trauma can have on someone’s life. I probably enjoyed Things I Don’t Want To Know more. It is a collection of autobiographical essays based on the four motivations George Orwell ascribes to a writer in Why I Write: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. These are the titles of the four essays in Levy’s book but the chapters relate to the titles in a subtle, tangential way, looking back at different periods of her life, including her childhood in South Africa. I found some of the book really moving, especially the parts about her growing up and finding her voice. What I like is how she writes about women’s experience in a stimulating, analytical way.

Her new novel Hot Milk focuses on a 20-something woman, Sophie, who comes to Almeria in Southern Spain with her mother, Rose, who is suffering from an unexplained illness which means she cannot walk and is dependent on Sophie for help with everyday life. The women have come to Spain to consult a well-known doctor whom they hope will be able to cure her. Chance encounters lead Sophie to Ingrid, a German seamstress who is in Spain with her boyfriend, and Juan, a student who works on the beach treating tourists who have been stung by the ‘medusa’, the translucent but deadly jellyfish which lurk in the sea. The novel has a few things in common with Swimming Home: the sense of overwhelming heat and vivid evocation of southern Europe, the strangeness of being in another country, a mysterious atmosphere. The plot however is very different and I found it a unique and captivating read.

The novel has a mythical feeling as it hints at hidden and fundamental emotions and passions. Its characters sometimes appear like Greek gods, while sometimes they are described as monsters. At the same time it’s a very contemporary novel, set in a recognisably modern world with 20-something characters, which makes it all the more intriguing. The novel explores fascinating subjects like psychosomatic illness and parent-child relationships, through writing that weaves a spell. It is poetic and elliptical but never heavy-going and has a sense of urgency and intensity to it that kept me engrossed.

Sophie has abandoned a PhD in anthropology because of her mother’s illness and is working in a cafe. It feels as if in many ways she is unable to start her life properly. As an anthropologist, she observes everything as an outsider and sometimes sees events through an anthropological lens, which I found interesting. She is an unpredictable, troubled character and you feel that she doesn’t understand herself well. In Spain she starts to follow her own impulses more and become bolder. Although an unconventional novel, Hot Milk is also a classic coming-of-age tale about a drive towards independence. There is an interlude where Sophie goes to Athens to visit her father, whom she never usually sees, and his new wife and child. In many ways this episode made me feel angry for Sophie because of the way she is treated, but in the end she rejects their way of life and actively chooses her own path. Sophie has no boundaries and is completely unaware of her own power, but all of this starts to change towards the end of the book.

There is a lot more to this novel than I have described here; I haven’t even talked about Sophie’s relationship with Ingrid, which is unsettling, possibly damaging and definitely ambiguous. Levy is clearly interested in exploring psychology, unconscious drives and the dynamics between people. Because of the scorching setting and dream-like atmosphere, this is an ideal summer read.

The WonderThe Wonder is an exciting and utterly absorbing novel that kept me hooked and turning pages to find out what happened next. Set in nineteenth-century Ireland, the story begins when a young English nurse, Lib Wright, arrives in a remote village. Lib has been hired for an unusual task: to keep watch over an eleven-year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell, who appears to have survived for four months without food. Anna’s case has mystified even the village doctor and priest, and has attracted visitors from far and wide to marvel at this miraculous child. Lib’s task is simply to discover the truth, but her initial detached scepticism becomes more complicated as she spends time with Anna and it becomes clear the story is more mysterious than she thought.

It is best to read this novel knowing as little as possible about the story. While I will try to avoid giving away the main plot twists, there may be some spoilers in what follows…

First of all, I really appreciated the fact that Lib was a complex character, as this kept me intrigued and made her more likeable. She feels uncomfortable in the rural, superstitious environment she has suddenly been dropped into, and is very aware of her superior education and training, and the differences in religious beliefs between herself and the Irish Catholics. She isn’t particularly keen to ingratiate herself and comes across as rather brusque and haughty but I liked the fact she is opinionated and sticks to her principles. As we learn more about Lib’s background, it emerges that she experienced a loss which led her to sign up as a nurse in the Crimea under Florence Nightingale. I enjoyed following her irreverent observations and intelligent questioning of the events around her, while it slowly becomes clear that she is more emotional and passionate than she imagines.

I also found it interesting to learn about how anorexia was viewed in the nineteenth century, as either a sign of sainthood or as a possible medical advance; the deluded village doctor imagines that Anna is a more evolved type of human being and that if humans can survive without food, it will lead to an end to war and starvation. The connections with religion, especially in such a devout country, and with the potato famine in Ireland a few years previously make this a complicated and fascinating subject. Even when the shocking cause of Anna’s anorexia is revealed, a psychological reason based in her experience and family background, it remains intertwined with her obsessive religious rituals. I found it interesting that in the end only an appeal to spiritual notions of rebirth has a chance of saving her, when logic and science have failed.

The atmosphere of the novel was unsettling at times, a combination of the isolated rural setting among damp fields and peat bogs, the villagers’ beliefs in fairies and magical rituals, and some macabre details of nineteenth-century attitudes to death. The author vividly describes the effects of starvation on Anna’s body, the physical reality of anorexia as seen by the nurse contrasting with the idealised view embraced by the priest and doctor who fail to see the real girl behind their theories. The novel cleverly shows how Lib, although intelligent and an experienced nurse, is patronised and dismissed by the doctors as emotional and lacking in medical expertise. The novel builds up suspense and tension, especially towards the end, as Lib is determined to discover the truth and bring it to light.

The Wonder coverAnother aspect of the novel I really liked was Lib’s relationship with William Byrne, a young Irish newspaper reporter. Their dialogue was a pleasure to read and I enjoyed the skilful way that the author built up their relationship and showed how Lib behaved differently with William than with the other characters, showing more of her true self. I felt at certain points that their relationship was very modern and I wondered if it was completely true to the nineteenth century, but then maybe my view is coloured by reading certain Victorian novels and their portrayal of women as angelic and innocent. I’m not sure how possible or unusual it would have been to defy convention. In any case, I was so pleased to discover such a vivid and intriguing relationship in fiction and liked the characters of both William and Lib so much, that this didn’t detract much from my enjoyment.

I also found the last part of the novel to be less plausible than the earlier sections, which perhaps I noticed because the rest of the novel felt very convincing and I was completely caught up in the storytelling. However the conclusion felt emotionally satisfying to me and maybe The Wonder, as its title suggests, is not intended to be the most realistic novel ever. I certainly found the book gripping, passionate and vivid, exploring a fascinating subject with imagination.