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.