I’ll admit it, I do have a soft spot for esoteric novels. It’s purely subjective of course but there is something about the ambivalence of the narrative and the uncertainty of it all that appeals to me and if you, like me, have the same leanings, then Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk” is the book for you.
I was initially a bit turned off the book because of the cover which depicts the lead character Sophia Irina in a bathing suit on the beach is quite discordant with the tone of the novel. While the beach is prominently featured in the book, the image itself doesn’t really work with the nature of the novel making this image seem like a marketing strategy gone wrong, which left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. The cover made me think of Atwood’s “Surfacing” though and it occurred to me that the writers had quite a bit in common, but I’ll get to that later.
First, let’s talk about the plot. Sophia and her mother Rose are in Almeria Spain in search for a cure of her mother’s mysterious illness. Sophia has left her life behind (such that it is) to take care of her mother out of financial dependence and a lifelong association of guilt towards her. Their relationship is fraught with Sophia feeling like an indentured servant bound to her mother; adding to that, she hasn’t been able to finish her thesis and has no clear career prospects and the result is, we are given a character who is entirely lost.
They arrive in Spain as a last-ditch effort hoping that the eccentric Dr Gomez will be able to help them but they find that there is more to the story than initially appears and that Rose might not be the only one in need of fixing.
My description of the novel is largely based on the book’s own blurb and I find that neither of them does justice to how good this book is. The descriptions of the book make it seem like a thriller or a medical drama but there is very little of either of those genres to be found here, rather this book is about looking inwards, finding yourself and then destroying it.
As stated previously one of my favorite parts of the novel is Levy’s writing style erratic and dreamlike as one would expect from a character who feels lost, trapped and is desperate to find a direction to go but too afraid to do anything. The shifting nature of the style beautifully captures the ambiguity of this kind of thought as the certainty of the world is constantly shaken. Ideas are asserted only to be completely disproved by the next page and sometimes in the same paragraph.
Here I see the parallels with Atwood who also impresses on the reader the subjectivity of the narrative and the ability of the human mind to construct a more pleasant picture of the world particularly demarcated using semicolons and commas rather than paragraphs which make the shifts almost imperceptible.
Nothing of consequence really happens in the book, there is no particular aim with which it is moving and no real resolution is at hand by the end of it, it is characteristically entirely up to the reader to imbue the events of the book with meaning and there are quite a few options to choose from.
Another positive aspect of the novel is that there is a diverse and well-crafted cast of characters that furnish the novel like Ingrid Bauer, Julieta Gomez (Nurse Sunshine) and various others but somehow they act more as conduits of Sophia’s self-reflection than anything else.
If I were to criticize something about the book it would be for one of the main reasons I like it in the first place; the novel is too much in its own head. The approachable storyline is coupled with an erratic storytelling style that while interesting is not always inviting. This minor gripe is far from a reason not to read it but if you are already reluctant to pick up the book and not accustomed to this style then it might put you off the novel entirely. I may be nitpicking here because it obviously has a wide appeal evidenced by it being on last year’s Man Booker Prize Shortlist but I thought I might as well put it out there.
Overall I thought the book was fantastic though at times I was made too aware of its efforts to project a certain image, however, it is certainly worth a read and if you give into what the book tries to do then you will be in for quite an interesting ride.
Rating: 3.5 stars