I think if I knew more about Greek mythology, anthropology, medusae, father-complex and cultural memory, then Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk would be even better, and more layered with meaning, than it already is.
As it is, I understand enough about hypochondria and passive-aggressiveness to know that what Levy has created in the characters of Rose and Sofia is truly excellent stuff.
“Hello Sofia. I can see that you’ve been having a nice time at the beach.”
I told her the beach was desolate and that I’d been staring for two hours at a pile of gas canisters. It was my special skill, to make my day smaller so as to make her day bigger.
Sofia and her mother, Rose, travel to southern Spain, to visit a clinic run by an unconventional ‘doctor’, Gómez.
On Monday my mother will display her various symptoms to the consultant like an assortment of mysterious canapés. I will be holding the tray.
Rose hopes that Gómez can cure the mysterious paralysis that confines her to a wheelchair and Sofia hopes that a cure will free her from her mother’s incessant demands and dependency.
That is the mystery of my mother’s lame legs – sometimes they step out into the world like phantom working legs.
Gómez observes –
“It’s the vitality she puts into not walking that concerns me.”
Additional characters – Gómez’s daughter, ‘Sunshine’; Sofia’s estranged father and his young, new wife and baby; and Ingrid, a German tourist with whom Sofia becomes infatuated – provide further elements to the story.
Levy explores themes of strained family relationships and feelings of solitude. Her writing is beautifully detailed, evocative and lyrical, and it seems that there are layers of meaning in every sentence, analogies at every turn – monkeys in glass cases; a father constantly urging for naps; silk embroidery; a broken laptop screen; glasses of water; a beheaded snake; an unfinished PhD… But perhaps I’m looking for meaning when there was nothing but a straightforward story about an angry mother and daughter intended?
Ingrid carries out a tray of her homemade lemonade…she’s not exactly a wife, more like a cocktail waitress who is also an athlete and a mathematician.
Levy creates an exceptional sense of place – you feel the blistering Mediterranean sun, the salty water and dusty paths. At the same time, she injects a feeling of menace into the southern Spanish coast, with seawater swarming with stinging tentacles; a manic dog straining at a chain; Ingrid and her weird, unhinged impulses; and feral cats circling the town square. Even the small narrative interludes, where the reader ‘watches’ Sofia from a distance, add tension and create a sense of unease.
A table for three had been reserved in the village square restaurant because he assumed she could walk there with relative ease from the apartment. It had not been an easy walk. My mother tripped over pistachio shells that had not been swept from the square the night before. I had spent an hour sorting out the laces of her shoes but, in the end, Rose had been felled by a nut that was no bigger than a large pea.
5/5 Weird, unnerving, compelling. Hope it wins the Booker tonight.
Rose is asked if she is enjoying her bean soup – “Enjoying is too strong a word. It is wet but tasteless.” To which Gomez eventually replies, “I hope your appetite for enjoyment gets its strength back.”
Great review, Kate., and such sharp barbs in those quotes you’ve pulled out.
Thanks! I made a note of more than 30 quotes, all as sharp as the others. It’s a fascinating book.
Yeah, I’d be happy if this won the Booker, too.
Have only read it and Eileen on this year’s shortlist but would pick HM over Eileen (which was memorable and weird as well but this book has such clever, poetic writing).
Yeah, definitely—Eileen is incredible for characterisation and atmosphere but it feels like there’s more *going on* with Hot Milk.
Totally agree (and judges love stuff *going on*).
I’ve ordered Eileen and she is winging her way to me but obviously we will wake up to the announcement. Really liked Hot Milk but… I’m not sure what the but is but there is a but.
Eileen is bizarre. Good but seriously dark.
Re the but in Hot Milk – I felt the same at first but those buts are fading and what I’m left with is a bunch of characters I can’t stop thinking about. At this rate, it might end up my favourite book this year.
I agree re the characters. I think I made a mistake reading Swimming Home straight after.
I had the joy of reading Swimming Home when it was first published and basically unheard of (so much so that the publisher linked to my review on their website!). How I came across it I have no idea, although suspect it was because it had the word ‘swimming’ in the title and that would have caught my eye.
I really do need to read this book.
Nearly every blogger I know has said the same thing: not sure if I ‘got’ it but brilliant 😁
Pingback: Bookish (and not so bookish) Thoughts | booksaremyfavouriteandbest
I agree that there were lots of layers & hidden depths in this story. It’s what gave this book it’s edge & kept me reading. It’s haunting me more than I thought it would too.
This sounds absolutely incredible. Deborah Levy has passed me by until now, I need to look out for her books, she sounds a huge talent.
Swimming Home and Hot Milk are very different in many ways but her style is consistent (amazing).
Great review! I’ve seen this all over the place lately, but it’s one of those that I haven’t bothered looking into *because* it’s everywhere. As a result I didn’t really know what it was about. So I’m glad I read your post because I think I’d actually like this book!
It will certainly be in my top 5 for the year. It’s a little odd to begin but once the mother Rose was introduced, it’s gripping.
Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday: The last 10 books added to my Goodreads TBR | Bits & Books
Pingback: The Top 36 from the Best Books of 2016 List of Lists | booksaremyfavouriteandbest
Pingback: My Best Books for 2016 | booksaremyfavouriteandbest
Your review was so interesting to read! You are so right, the sense of place is wonderful, the heat, the sun, the dust… all rise from the page. She has also captured the wonderfully horrid passive aggressive relationship between mother and daughter, how cowing it is for the “victim”; but for me, the wider psychological tenets felt weak, all pulled together by contiguous happenings and relationships that just felt too random. I guess she is just not an author for me!
Pingback: The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida | booksaremyfavouriteandbest
Pingback: October Rewind | booksaremyfavouriteandbest
Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation – from Daisy Jones to Fake | booksaremyfavouriteandbest
Pingback: Sample Saturday – swimming, an engagement, and a town | booksaremyfavouriteandbest