Deborah Levy is a writer of dreamy precise prose that stirs within the reader a certain atmosphere of contemplation and sunshine (her stories are often set abroad) that stays long after the novel ends. I felt the same, strange, out of reality atmosphere when I read her previous novel Swimming Home and I felt it again reading Hot Milk. The book is set on the Spanish coast and explores the complex inner life of Sofia Papastergiadis, a young woman, holding a Anthropology degree (but not using it) who is caring for her ailing mother’s unknown illness that leaves her unable to walk (sometimes). Sofia also is stung by jellyfish, the medusa that plague the sea, starts two loves affairs, one with a young man, the other with a slightly older German woman, frees a chained-up dog (maybe), visits her absent father and his new family, learns to drive and visits the clinic of Dr Gómez with her mother.
(mild spoilers follow)
Sofia is trapped in her life but does not know what she wants and so is unable to move forward. She learns to be selfish (from her father’s new wife), she learns what desire feels like and being desired (from her German lover, Ingrid). She learns how to be a daughter to her mother not her carer, she learns to reclaim her life (and her legs). Throughout the novel and at multiple points Sofia expresses her how body is not her own, but her mother’s ‘her legs are my legs. Her pains are my pains.’ She is not free to live as she wishes, instead she is trapped by her mother’s illness which Levy never confirms either way as being psychosomatic or not. The charming Dr Gómez at the clinic offers no clear cut answers either, cutting the mother medication and prescribing Sofia her own prescription to ‘steal a fish’ to make her bolder. Motherhood and caring is an obvious key theme, Levy asks to what extent parents have a right to be selfish with their children, what it means when the child is the one who must care for the parent. A revelation to Sofia, given by her father’s younger second wife is that he ‘does nothing that is not to his advantage’ and it is a phrase that Sofia quickly absorbs and repeats as she tries to understand its full meaning.
Levy’s prose is poetic and exact, saying what needs to be said but leaving much for the reader to interpret. People speak not as people do in real life, but better, with more profundity. In lesser hands it would sound snobbish, overwrought, but Levy’s delicate touch ensures conversations instead thrum with potential meanings and relevance. As Ingrid notes Sofia is a natural observer and analyser of people and their actions (the outcome of her Anthropology degree) so that when she first meets Ingrid she asks:
Who is Ingrid Bauer?
What are her beliefs and sacred ceremonies? Does she have economic autonomy? What are her rituals with menstrual blood? How does she react to the winter season? What is her attitude to beggars? Does she believe she has a soul? If she does, it it embodied by anything else? A bird or a tiger? Does she have an app for Uber on her smartphone? Her lips are so soft.
Levy shifts easily between the poetic (the soul) and the mundane (Uber) and ends with a thought that seems to surprise Sofia herself – ‘Her lips are so soft’ – this is the beginning of the stirrings for desire that grip Sofia. She frequently seems to daydream so that reality and Sofia’s perception of it become blurred (Ingrid and Sofia share a dream, Sofia imagines Ingrid running her down with a horse, but she does not such thing). There are many mutual misunderstandings and misinterpretations, most notable Sofia misreading the word ‘Beheaded’ as ‘Beloved’ on a top that Ingrid embroiders for her.
Desire and being desired are new emotions that Sofia grapples with. Levy flips the expected narrative of the mystery young ingenue by giving us her perspective instead, so we are inside Sofia head when she is observing Ingrid. It is her wanting and her desire that the reader experiences which grows bolder throughout the novel, but we also get her uncertainty, her insecurity, her need for affection and stable love, something neither parent gave her. Her inability to take control over her life. Sofia is the object of many people’s desires: Ingrid’s, Juan, her mother, the doctor at the clinic: early in the novel she seems oblivious to this power, too wrapped up in her own desires and emotions, but slowly she realises the power of her own female sexuality, the push and the pull of it:
I understood now that Ingrid Bauer did not literally want to behead me. She wanted to behead her desire for me. Her own desire felt monstrous to her
The Medusa jellyfish and the scars and welts their stings leave on Sofia’s body act as anchor points in the novel. They are a symbol of desire, sharp and brutal, unavoidable but also wished for (more than once Sofia subjects herself to their stings despite warning; a metaphor perhaps for how she is drawn to Ingrid over and over, acting in ways that are not to her advantage). The novel ends on a image of the jellyfish: ‘like something cut loose’ and so the novel releases the reader back into reality, her characters freer to live and love than when they started.