Hot Milk


In her latest novel, Hot Milk, Deborah Levy once again (as in Swimming Home – a villa in Nice – and The Unloved – a French chateau) takes us on holiday. In Levy’s hands, however, these sun-bleached beaches, glittering pools and glaringly white buildings become other-worldly, as altered in her handling as Ballard’s suburban Britain. (Though, to be fair, Ballard himself wasn’t averse to getting out the passport in his later novels like Cocaine Nights). This time we are in Almeria, mingling with tourists, but on a different mission. Sofia and her mother, Rose, have come not to holiday but to heal at the hands of Dr Gomez, a last resort made possible by re-mortgaging their home. Rose is unable to walk, a mystery that no medical professional in the UK has been able to solve, and Sofia’s life has been placed on hold as she cares for her:

“The dream is over for me…. It ended when she became ill and I abandoned my Ph. D. The unfinished thesis I wrote for my doctorate still lurks in a digital file behind the shattered screen saver like an unclaimed suicide.”

As her future fades, Sofia becomes less and less certain who she is in her present. This is highlighted when she is stung by a jelly fish and must write down her name, age, country of origin, and occupation: when it comes to the latter she doesn’t know what to write. Even her nationality is in doubt, with a Greek surname from a father she hasn’t seen in years pointing towards a language she doesn’t speak. She puzzles Dr Gomez by referring to her mother as ‘Rose’. As he says, “identity is always difficult to guarantee.”

Rose’s identity is her illness; as Sofia says, “I have been sleuthing my mother’s symptoms for as long as I can remember.” Her father leaves because he, too, has adopted a new identity:

“My father suffered a religious conversion but as far as I know he has not got over it.”

In both cases, these identities allow her parents to undermine Sofia’s sense of self: her father simply ceases to see her, as if she were no longer his daughter; her mother reduces her to the role of carer, even complaining about her to Gomez:

“Sofia is lazy when it comes to putting a glass of water by my bed at night.”

At times Sofia finds it difficult to separate herself from Rose. Shaking Gomez’s hand on behalf of her mother she thinks, “Her arm is my arm.” Later on the beach:

“Sometimes, I find myself limping. It’s as if my body remembers the way I walk with my mother.”

From the moment we meet Gomez we sense that he is suspicious of Rose’s illness:

“His tone was vague. Vaguely mocking and vaguely amiable.”

He encourages her to reduce her medication, and the treatment becomes a battle of wills as Rose refuses to admit her health, even suggesting she might have her feet amputated. However, Gomez gives Sofia courage, as does her holiday romance with Ingrid, a woman, she admits, who is “not a safe person to love.” Just as Sofia struggles to see herself, so too she finds it hard to visualise Ingrid or the relationship clearly. She first meets Ingrid when she thinks she is a man in the Ladies’ toilets. Later, Ingrid gives her a blouse with a word stitched into it, but it is a different word to the one Sofia reads there.

The novel is the story of Sofia’s attempt to free herself, just as she wants to free the dog of owner of the diving-school, Pablo. But, as Ingrid points out, freedom is never straight-forward:

“There is a problem, Zoffie. Pablo’s dog has been badly treated. He will not know what to do with his freedom. The dog will run through the village and eat all the babies.”

Hot Milk (is the title a reference to maternal comforts?) is a novel about freeing yourself from family, not only those who cling to you, but also those who reject you. In pushing Rose to find the first step she needs to save her life, Sofia hopes to save her own. It’s another sharp, insightful novel by Levy, who writes realism (like Ballard) by jarring the probable against the possible. Its recent appearance on the Goldsmith’s Prize shortlist (as well as the Man Booker) is no surprise.


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14 Responses to “Hot Milk”

  1. hastanton Says:

    Loved this book and its claustrophobic atmosphere ……great review

    • 1streading Says:

      It is very claustrophobic, though a large part of that is the mother’s presence. (Although it also feels claustrophobic when she visits her father, for different reasons).

  2. Caroline Says:

    I loved Swimming Home and this sounds equally good. So many of the themes you mention resonate with me.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I’ve become a fan of Levy’s work since reading Swimming Home, having read Billy and Girl and The Unloved. Still to catch up on all her early work though!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Even though I’ve read Swimming Home, I hadn’t picked up on the repeated use of holiday settings in Levy’s novels. Maybe the fact that these characters are away from their natural surroundings forces them to re-examine their own identities in this way…

    • 1streading Says:

      I think you are right – though it’s also a way of putting disparate characters together. Being on holiday (or in a different country) also makes the ordinary seem strange.

  4. MarinaSofia Says:

    Planning to read this as soon as I can get my hands on it at the library.

  5. Tony Says:

    One to try, perhaps (when I get around to contemporary English-language writing!).

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, there are just too many good books! I seem to be reading a few English language books at the moment – not planned but I find it sometimes happens.

  6. bookbii Says:

    Excellent review Grant. I am very fond of Levy, but haven’t read this one as yet. Sounds like a worthy presence on the Booker and Goldsmiths’ Prize shortlists.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I liked Swimming Home, possibly even loved it at the time though it’s faded a bit in memory.

    What does “shattered screen saver” mean? Leaving aside the fact nobody has screen savers anymore (they date back to when computer screens could suffer from burn-in, which hasn’t been true for absolutely years) how could one shatter? It’s a nicely alliterative line but I’m not sure it means anything. It also sounds a bit odd from what I’d think would be Sofia’s age, they date to an earlier generation.

    Anyway, perhaps I’m nitpicking. I’ll likely read this, but Goldsmiths’wise I think Martin John will be first.

    Re holidays, it occurs to me they take people from context allowing one perhaps to focus in on them with greater precision since they have no everyday to contend with. It also occurs to me that Levy’s characters tend to a certain privilege, but that’s true of a great many authors so no criticism.

    • 1streading Says:

      The screen saver just passed me by I’m afraid – I suspect you’re correct and it was the sound of the line which won out over the meaning.
      I think you’re absolutely right abut the “out of context” nature of holidays, allowing us to see (and perhaps more crucially here) be seen differently.

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