So, this is the novel which you, dear readers, voted that I should read...
I had seen some good reviews of Hot Milk, which is the second of Deborah Levy’s novels to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, so I was very pleased when I found a copy in the English-language section of my local library. It did not disappoint.
The book is narrated by twenty-five-year-old Sofia Papastergiadis, former PhD candidate in anthropology, current waitress and coffee-maker in a West London café, who has accompanied her mother Rose to Almería in a last-ditch attempt to find a cure for Rose’s mysterious partial paralysis. Nestled between the barren hills and the poisoned sea is the clinic of Mr Gómez, built of veined white marble and shaped like a breast. As Rose submits to Gómez’s unorthodox treatments, Sofia ministers to her, swims in the sea and embarks on sexual relationships with Juan in the beach injury hut and Ingrid, the German seamstress.
Very subtly, the novel explores femininity. Sofia (‘wisdom’) perceives her world in terms of symbols, symbols that for the most part she chooses not to pin down with a specific, single interpretation but leave open, to accumulate layers of meaning. (And perhaps she is afraid of misreading them, as she misreads the word Ingrid embroiders on her silk top.) An example is the image of Medusa, enmeshed in ideas about female bodies and what they ‘ought’ and ‘ought not’ to do. Stung by ‘medusa’ jellyfish, Sofia identifies herself several times as a monster, despising her body as failing to match contemporary ideals of slenderness. Ingrid also self-identifies as a monster, perhaps because of what she did to her sister, perhaps because of her desire for Sofia. Sofia, however, usually perceives Ingrid as a hero figure, like Perseus rather than Medusa: Ingrid wears silver sandals laced up her calves, she has a bow and arrow to shoot lizards and is interested in decapitation. This is made very explicit near the end of the novel, when she rides a horse at Sofia, ‘in her helmet and boots. High in the dizzying sky an eagle spread its wings and circled the horse’. Rose is also associated with monstrousness, craving amputation like the beheaded Medusa, like the jellyfish ‘in limbo, like something cut loose’. Sofia experiences that desire of her mother’s to cut off her feet as being a desire to cut herself off from Sofia (‘Her legs are my legs. Her pain is my pain’).
In their different ways, Rose and Sofia are trying to reject what one might call the ideals of womanhood. Sofia destroys some images of females; she crushes a doll (already broken) under the wheel of her car and later hurls a vase to the floor. The vase is a ‘fake’, a copy of an Ancient Greek black figure vase, showing seven slave women fetching water. Its destruction inspires Sofia to visit her father in Greece, meeting him for the first time in fourteen years. It may also be part of her attempt to reject her current rôle as handmaiden to her mother. She does, however, purchase an air-freshener from the market in the shape of a woman with ‘massive belly and heavy breasts’, a form closer to her image of herself.
Rose, meanwhile, is withdrawing from the traditional definition of motherhood. Conventional mothers include Alexandra, the very young second wife of Sofia’s father, who devotes her time to breastfeeding her new baby in an atmosphere of stifling solicitousness, and – bathetically – Jodo the cat, who gives birth to kittens in the breast-shaped clinic. Jodo is also described suckling her kittens. Rose does not want to be nurturing and nourishing in this way any longer. Instead, she reverses things. She demands that her daughter tend to her, and bring her endless glasses of water (in place of milk?), water that is never the right water. The novel is set against the Greek government-debt crisis, and Greece seems to figure as a sort of cultural parental figure. What debts do Sofia, her father and Rose owe each other? Can and should they be repaid?
Sofia is content with this but also not content. She wants a bigger life, but her passivity and diffidence paralyse her. At the novel’s opening the screen of her laptop splinters, which she takes as a metaphor for herself: ‘My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else. So what I am saying is that if it is broken, so am I.’ From breakage may come rebirth: Sofia crushes the doll and smashes the vase, she visits her father, she starts laying plans to escape to the US and continue her PhD. The end of the novel, however, makes it seem unlikely that she will succeed.
(Deborah Levy, 2013, photographed for the Observer)