I 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.