If this book was an art film, I’d definitely turn to my companion during the end credits and say something along the lines of “What was up with THAT?” But in a good way, of course!
I love the unusual, sweaty, sexy language and setting of this book. Freud would definitely have a field day with this. The narrator of Hot Milk is Sofia, a 25-year-old drop-out of her anthropology PhD program, who now works at a coffee shop serving artisanal espressos. She has traveled to southern Spain with her invalid mother Rose, who suffers from a mysterious and unpredictable paralysis of the legs and is seeking out the help of a famous doctor. The seaside town where they’re staying has been invaded by dangerous jellyfish, their neighbor has a tied-up dog who won’t stop barking, and the famous doctor Gómez and his mildly alcoholic daughter-assistant Nurse Sunshine seem to provide more questions than answers for Rose and her daughter. Sofia herself seems strangely adrift, so used to helping her mother that she often adopts her mother’s limp when she walks by herself (see what I meant about Freud?).
This is essentially a book in which you need to accept its mysterious, sultry, unpredictable mood. Hallucinatory is a good word to describe it; shimmery and hypnotic are others. You never know what is going to happen next, and that is a feeling I love. This is the kind of book in which Sofía is instructed by Dr. Gómez to steal a fish from a market, or you get sentences like “We dressed as if there wasn’t a dead snake in the room,” (123) and it makes perfect sense.
What I enjoy most about Deborah Levy are her tremendous sentences, her offbeat and surprising perspective that makes her view the world in a new way. “Whiskery langoustines” at an outdoor market are described as “the professors of the ocean.” (77) While looking at the galaxy screen saver of her smashed laptop, Sofia observes that one of the constellations “looked like a calf. Where will it find grass in this galaxy? It will have to eat stars.” (126) Unfinished hotels are “hacked into the mountains like a murder.” References to the European financial crisis are constant: “My lips were still cracking. Like the economies of Europe. Like financial institutions everywhere.” (135) I found these references to contemporary Europe the most interesting, especially when Sofia touches base with her long-gone father, and compares herself to a creditor coming to reclaim her debts.
What to make of this? What’s up with the sensually purring white cat who gives birth to kittens in the end? Is the Hot Milk of the title a reference to the coffee shop where Sofia works? What to make of the eerie open ending, those final sentences comparing the jellyfish drifting like refugees? What about all those moments in which Sofia feels like she is turning into a monster, Medusa-like (medusa is also the Spanish word for jellyfish). I haven’t touched on Sofia’s affairs with the beach shack nurse (who seems to be the narrator of strange, disjointed stand-alone chapters in which he is watching Sofia and having the same dreams as her), and the Spanish woman who likes to wear men’s shoes. Is the novel ultimately the story of Sofia’s coming-of-age, of journeying from girl to woman?
In the end I’m really not sure (I hope someone writes a dissertation about it and finds out for themselves), and I also don’t care. I loved letting this book wash over me like too-hot water from a bathtub. I also liked how the main character was sexy and alluring, yet also thoughtful and intriguing. Much like the often-naked Kitty in Levy’s previous novel Swimming Home (which was also fantastic and deserving of a reread), I like how Levy gives us these female characters with interesting minds who also often don’t wear clothes, as if she’s daring us to deal with a female character who is often sexy, vulnerable and exposed, yet also the driving force and ultimately most powerful figure in the novel.
Yes, some things are getting bigger, other things are getting smaller. Love is getting bigger and more dangerous. Technology is getting smaller, the human body is getting bigger, my low-rise jeans are cutting into my hips which are round and brown and toned from a month of swimming every day but I am still spilling over the waistband of these jeans not made for hips. I am overflowing like coffee leaking from a paper cup. I wonder, shall I make myself smaller? Do I have enough space on Earth to make myself less?
I was flesh thirst desire dust blood lips cracking feet blistered knees skinned hips bruised, but I was so happy not to be napping on a sofa under a blanket with an older man by my side and a baby on my lap. (202)