Review of "Hot Milk" by Deborah Levy
A mother and a daughter in a town in southern Spain in August. The mother, unable to walk, feels being there, even if on a medical trip, even if the Mediterranean for her is a mere view from the terrace of the chalet they rented, is a test – potentially in liberation; does she want, is she able, to embrace that liberation, or is it too difficult to abandon one’s comfort zone of anger? On her first day, the daughter, Sophie, rushes to the sea, is stung by shellfish, or the “Medusas” – do the Spanish call them that because their long limbs resemble the Medusa’s hair, or is the sting a metaphor for shocking stares that will stone both, mother and daughter.
“Hot Milk’s” main character, Sophie, takes us on a journey of two hundred pages to graduate herself from that designation we first meet her as – the daughter – to emerge as a full human being. Sophie’s ’emergence’ takes place as she unfolds layers of herself, by airing her shortcomings and grasping new glimmers of potential. At the beginning, most of Sophie’s disappointments are at herself; as the pages – and encounters – accumulate, her disappointments become richer; those at herself get entwined with those at circumstances and at others. In a book full of introspection and subtle analysis of wants and needs, it is remarkable that these heaps of disappointments, and in turn “Hot Milk”, bear no bitterness. Disappointments make Sophie look for different routes, ones that slowly seduce us, the readers, to turn the pages, to listen to her thoughts, see her perspectives, and to join her in her journey to lean away from the disappointments towards the potential.
This is not a book about taking control. It is not about empowering oneself. And it is the farthest thing from a subtle feminist argument. It could be about acceptance, of oneself. At moments, “Hot Milk” seems to hypnotize us into believing that the best journeys are the ones in which we lose control. Perhaps it is fitting. The novel unfolds on the shores of the Mediterranean, where for centuries local myths (on the sea’s northern and southern shores) venerated drifters: those who appear out of nowhere, sons and daughters of the waves, who are themselves on journeys, and who, in the courses of these journeys, meet, illuminate, and often set free, others.
Equally plausible, the novel could also be seen as an attempt to escape being a drifter in life. Sophie comes to al-Meria (the Andalusian town whose name means “the mirror” in Arabic) and sees her life as following her mother, attending to her as she (the mother) seems to be succumbing to a mental paralysis, a resignation of the will. Sophie has abandoned her doctorate; has been living in a small room above the cafe she works in in London. None of that was supposed to be milestones of her career, landmarks of her life. None of that is truly hers, or truly her. She has been drifting. And it is here, in al-Meria, that she stops being a drifter. She makes decisions: from confronting her mother’s illness to connecting with her anger, insecurities, and libertinism. Sophie spends a lot of time on the pages of “Hot Milk” walking semi naked, on beaches, kitchens, makeshift rooms, and even in the desert. And yet, she ceases to be a drifter.
The setting of the novel has a meaning. The author, Deborah Levy, (most likely) intended al-Meria to reflect Sophie’s thoughts, her inner life. But there is also a reason for being on the Mediterranean in August: a milieu of freedom, joy, and sensuality. Sophie’s mind finds space to roam, in the same way that her mother’s legs – hesitating between walking and the wheelchair – are seduced by the beach, to move, to stroll. The geographic exile, even if only for few weeks, in a welcoming setting, sets emotions and desires free.
“Hot Milk” has a dark side, though. There is the vulnerability of those in geographic and emotional transit, those who feel they have a short window of time in which to explore what they have wanted, yet never dared, to discover; and those who have not yet figured out what they want. For Sophie, these range from a desire to pursue her dreams: owning her time, not being tied to her mother’s life of dependency and illness, sleeping with a carefree student who peeks at her, to finishing her PhD in America. Deborah Levy does not just show that vulnerability in a charming way, one that encourages the reader to let go of his/her inhibitions. She also – and with matching relish – uncovers the anxiousness that comes with being in the midst of emotional transition. Sophie does not regret any decision she acts on in “Hot Milk”. But in thinking about her wants, and in acting on them, she exposes wounds that were long covered in her normal life, before she came to al-Meria to see herself mirrored in front of the piercing eyes of her brain.
And then, there’s fear: “Fear of failing, falling, and feeling”. More anxiety: at seeing previously unchartered depths of one’s insides, at taking risks only to discover that leaving comfort zones can ascend us to where we want, or leave us to fall without the safety net of ignorance of who we truly are. And with all of that, there’s the fear of feeling: love and hate, longing and repulsion, wanting and discarding – to others, especially very close ones, and crucially to our own selves.
Deborah Levy exposes her characters’ myriad of sufferings. Suffering from unrealized aspirations, from confusion at what to do in the face of mounting difficulties, from lacking love, from finding love and feeling unable to achieve it, from the insecurities that come from achieving it and fearing to lose it, from fraught relationships with parents, from confronting unfamiliar circumstances that seem to be – or that our minds interpret them as – threatening, and, painfully, suffering from being disappointed with ourselves. Is it true that women suffer that last feeling more than men do? And if true, does it reflect more demanding minds or more sensitive dispositions, or both? “Hot Milk” leaves the feelings and the questions it raises in the reader’s mind, hanging. Deborah Levy is a pragmatic author; though “Hot Milk” is about interior lives, it is not concerned with answering the questions it compels our minds to ask. Deborah wants us to move on with her characters. They feel, we think (for few seconds after we raise our eyes from the novel’s pages), then they and us (the readers) move on, to more conversations, vulnerabilities, fears, and inevitably other questions.
Moving on is a way for the characters, and for us, to pretend not to notice the feelings “Hot Milk” stirred. And yet the commonality of this tendency of not-to-notice, the fact that we as readers immediately get what Deborah Levy is telling us, lies at the heart of what this book is about: that insecurities, introspection, fears, suffering, and feeling lonely are widely shared. We get what this book is about because Sophie is not particularly unique. Her emotions resonate with readers. “Hot Milk” is about the hope, though rarely the conscious act, of most people to have a life story, a real story that contains interesting characters, entails progress, is rich with raw emotions, that connects with base wants, and yet that is not devoid of meaning. This transcends desire. It is a need.
Abandoning that need creates rage. Losing the plot of what one’s life is about engenders rejection of circumstances, the first step towards descending into victimhood. Sophie’s mother is a prime example. That’s until Sophie challenges that narrative, by changing her mother’s circumstances. I will not be a spoiler. But perhaps one of the interesting features of “Hot Milk” is Deborah Levy’s ability to weave interesting events, sharp twists of the plot, into a book that is essentially a flow of introspection. There’s a bit of Woody Allen in Deborah Levy.
“Hot Milk” does not feel like a conceived, structured, and executed novel. Some critics scoff at that fluidity. Many consider it a post-modern prose that lacks the thinking depth upon which great literature stands. To a reader, however, that fluidity is the exact point of successful fiction: that you forget you’re reading a novel and be transported to the place, time, and milieu where the story unfolds. And if, as is the case in “Hot Milk”, the novel is wrapped in luscious wording (crucial if a writer is to avoid crossing the fine line between a sensual flow and a crude register), the transportation acquires an additional layer of joy.