Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

I’m the first to admit that I’m not the best reader of Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk. As each of the several positive reviews I read noted, it’s about a deeply neurotic mother-daughter relationship, which Sarah Lyall insists in the New York Times is known to “[a]nyone who has been a mother or a daughter.” But the “toxic dance of power, guilt, competitiveness, dependency and resentment” she describes is not, in fact, part of my experience of the world.

But why should that be a problem—I should be able to understand all this anyway via the empathetic magic of the novel, right? Well, let’s see.

Hot Milk is narrated by Sofia Papastergiadis, a woman in her midtwenties who has dropped out of a PhD program in anthropology and works as a barista, sleeping weeknights in a storeroom and spending weekends at her mother’s. At the opening of the novel, she is in Almería, Spain, also with her mother, who has mortgaged her home in London to pay for treatment at a private clinic there run by a Dr Gómez.

From the very first page, it seems clear that Sofia’s mother is driving her crazy.

Will I still be here in a month? I don’t know. It depends on my sick mother, who is sleeping under a mosquito net in the next room. She will wake up and shout, ‘Get me water, Sofia,’ and I will get her water and it will always be the wrong sort of water. I am not sure what water means any more but I will get her water as I understand it: from a bottle in the fridge, from a bottle that is not in the fridge, from the kettle in which the water has been boiled and left to cool.

levy deborah hot milkAs Sofia explains to a man at the beach who helps her, also in the opening pages, with some jellyfish stings, “‘Sometimes Rose can walk, sometimes she can’t.'” He asks her to fill in a form about herself for his records about everyone who seeks treatment, and she balks at the “Occupation” field. “It might have been the pain of the sting, but I found myself telling him about my pathetic miniature life. ‘I don’t so much have an occupation as a preoccupation, which is my mother, Rose.'”

Indeed. She goes on to explain that they are here so Dr Gómez can investigate Rose’s mysterious illness, which drew Sofia away from her PhD and involves Rose saying she can’t walk or feel her feet when she wants attention, and, when no attention is available, walking to the store all by herself to buy what she wants. Sofia claims to have been “sleuthing my mother’s symptoms for as long as I can remember,” investigating “for about twenty of my twenty-five years,” (it does not appear to be explained that Sofia also claims Rose “became ill” while she was in grad school) and that this is “good training for an anthropologist.” Other reviewers call out Sofia’s sharpness, but somehow she isn’t sharp enough to have realized none of her mother’s symptoms is verifiable, and they all mysteriously disappear whenever it’s convenient—for Rose.

So from the first pages of the novel it seems clear that Sofia is an unreliable narrator. She frequently becomes confused in public, has trouble having conversations with strangers and acquaintances, and narrates openly about how “I have become a good mind reader, which means [Rose’s] head is my head.”

It also seems immediately clear that her mother is abusive and horrible, and that Sofia is entirely in her thrall and extremely pathetic.

But why? How is one to have empathy with this mother-daughter neurosis if one has not already experienced it? When Sofia starts chanting about how “My love for my mother is like an ax,” I wish she’d just use it to chop her mother’s legs off. Or, honestly, I wish Rose would use it to chop Sofia’s foolish head off. Rose is the much less alienating of the two women.

So, all that happens within the first few pages, and the rest of the novel involves Rose’s treatment at the Gómez Clinic and Sofia’s awakening. By the end, Rose can walk (which I don’t feel like is a spoiler since it’s obvious right away that her illness is fake) and Sofia is asking her for a glass of water. Sofia has also had a couple of affairs, and gone to Greece to visit her father, stepmother (only a few years older than Sofia), and infant half-sister.

Other reviewers seem pretty positive on the whole thing. In The Guardian, Erica Wagner describes the situation thus:

She is in a rented beach house with her mother, Rose, in southern Spain—but if this sounds like a holiday, it’s not. Rose has remortgaged her flat to come here, to a mysterious clinic run by a man called Gómez: perhaps Gómez can cure the mysterious paralysis that confines Rose to a wheelchair and binds her daughter to her with chains of control and dependency. But there is no cure here—only strange pronouncements from a doctor who may very well be a quack; a chained alsatian on the beach that won’t stop barking; the relentless sun and a sea full of poisonous jellyfish.

This is true—from the perspective of Sofia. But Sofia is unreliable. There is no mysterious paralysis, and the only chains are in Sofia’s mind. Should I believe that the rest of it is real? The same review goes on to explain that Sofia’s “father’s new family erases her own past,” but again, that is only Sofia’s own neurosis. But writing something like, “Sofia is really upset because her parents got divorced over twenty years ago” doesn’t sound as good, I guess. (And no reviewer I saw noted that it was almost certainly her mother’s abusive codependence that drove Christos away all those years ago; it never occurs to Sofia either.)

In the Times, Lyall reassures that, “Perhaps this sounds tiresome or conventional, a typical coming-of-age story. It’s not.” It is. “It’s a pleasure to be inside Sofia’s insightful, questioning mind.” It’s not. I mean this kind of thing is subjective. This is taste. But how can you describe Sofia as insightful or questioning when the whole point is she’s going along with this absurd fake paralysis story—for years? From the same review:

As for the amusing Dr. Gómez, he may be an awful clinician, but he’s prone to sudden and surprisingly apt observations. “You are using your mother like a shield to protect yourself from making a life,” he says. Later he declares that he has lost interest in finding out what is wrong with Rose and is more concerned with Sofia. “My question is this,” he says. “What is wrong with you?”

The “awful clinician” cures both Rose and Sofia, and if that is a surprising observation, I don’t know what novel Lyall was reading up to that point. Gómez is not the only person Sofia meets who recognizes that her mother is taking advantage of her.

In the Financial Times, Lionel Shriver describes one of the funnier episodes of the novel (and it is funny):

When Ingrid gives her new lover a blouse, Sofia is thrilled to find that the German has embroidered the silk with the word “Beloved”. But later—I told you this book is odd—she discovers the embroidery reads instead, “Beheaded”.

I suppose it’s fair to call Ingrid odd, but by that point in the novel it doesn’t seem at all odd to find out Sofia has made such a mistake.

That Sofia is unreliable is not any reason dislike Hot Milk—and it can sometimes be funny, as above with the blouse. The gift of the blouse goes completely to Sofia’s head; she wants Ingrid to be in love with her. She wears it to feel sexy on her trip to Athens. Her stepmother asks her what it means:

‘What does what mean?’
‘The word on your top?’
I start to think about how to describe the word Beloved. ‘It means to be very loved,’ I say. ‘A true, great love.’
She looks confused. ‘I don’t think that’s right.’
I wonder if she thinks that being very loved is not right for me.
‘The word is more violent than that,’ she continues.
‘Yes, it is a forceful feeling,’ I reply. ‘When we call someone beloved, it is a strong feeling.’

Sofia has for the past few scenes been making Alexandra out as a lightweight, and we won’t find out until later that she’s wrong about the embroidery. You could read Sofia as bold and incisive, pointing out Alexandra’s patronizing cruelty…or as so anxious and self-absorbed she suspects this kind young woman of being stupid and/or mean. And in a later twist, we’ll find out Ingrid thinks Sofia is the cruel one, because she never gave Ingrid a gift in return.

Shriver also writes that “[a]chieving quite a feat of memory and imagination for an author in her mid-fifties, Levy gives convincing voice to the foundering, floundering sensation of the mid-twenties—the experimentation, the trying on of hats, the clinging to parents in the very throes of trying to let them go.”

I’m not saying my memory is better, or that everyone’s experience is the same, but what Shriver describes seems younger to me than midtwenties, and that may be something that didn’t really work for me about Hot Milk.

Of all the reviews I read, only Eimear McBride’s in The New Statesman* was willing to admit the obvious: “She knows, and we know she knows, what both the problem and the solution are, almost from the first page. It is difficult to remain patient with a woman who colludes in overly extending her own adolescence.”

I don’t know that it’s necessarily a question of patience. I just couldn’t take her very seriously—and it doesn’t seem like I was meant to, all things considered. And she was just a little bit too pathetic.

*McBride also notes, as I did right away, that “Interestingly, this is the second novel in as many years (Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island being the first) to feature anthropologists wielding their trade for alternative, and opposing, purposes.” Notably, both were on the Man Booker long list. Sofia even makes what could be a reference to McCarthy’s novel, noting that she “would rather work in the Coffee House than be hired to conduct research into why customers prefer one washing machine to another. Most of the students I studied with ended up becoming corporate ethnographers.”