‘Hot Milk’, Deborah Levy

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I bought Hot Milk on the Book Depository after seeing a #bookstagram and being completely taken in by the gorgeous cover.

I’d heard of Deborah Levy before but hadn’t ever read anything of hers. I was happy to hear a few weeks later that this novel was on the Man Booker longlist for 2016 – I had one read already, at least!

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In Southern Spain, a young woman is preoccupied with solving the mystery of her mother’s paralysis as they spend the summer at a clinic owned by the mysterious Dr Gomez.

25-year-old Sofia is an anthropologist-cum-barista who abandons her PhD and the beginnings of an independent life as a result of her mother’s unexplainable illness which binds her to a wheelchair and, in turn, Sofia to her mother.

In a struggle with her own identity and her relationship with the truth, Sofia wanders her way through Deborah Levy’s novel and embarks on relationships with German seamstress Ingrid and medical student Juan, all while her mother succumbs to the unorthodox methods of Dr Gomez in a clinic which doesn’t appear to have any other patients.

In this Mediterranean setting, we witness Sofia’s co-dependent relationship with her mother which is so ingrained that Sofia limps despite being perfectly healthy. “My love for my mother is like an axe,” says Sofia, “it cuts very deep.”

A complicated plot full of symbols, detail and long narrative writing allow ample room for Levy to explore the themes of sexuality and female rage, as well as the experience of being alive.

In this savage environment, where jellyfish float in all areas of the ocean, a savage Alsatian barks constantly and illegal immigrants are imprisoned in a polytunnel in the hills, a dreamlike mist pervades the atmosphere of the novel, a follow-up to Man Booker-shortlisted ‘Swimming Home’.

The theme of Sofia’s thesis was memory and as the young woman visits her estranged father in Greece midway through the novel, we learn how Sofia’s past has been swept away by her father, while her present and her future are under threat and unstable.

Unlikeable characters and surreal events make up the body of this novel, in which the style of writing is more reminiscent of a poem than most fiction. Levy’s hypnotic writing has earned her another place on this year’s Man Booker longlist.

This immersive novel will draw in even the most detached of readers, while Sofia’s feverish and frantic narration is difficult to forget long after turning the final page. The author delves into Sofia’s psyche in the nature of the anthropologist that Sofia is herself in captivating passages, but the lack of realism is frustrating and often difficult to connect with.

Hot Milk is published by Hamish Hamilton.

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