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.

As Sofia explains

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The Comforters by Muriel Spark

A few weeks ago, Amateur Reader was posting about the grinding gears of plot, and I said something in the comments about how I would have to start looking out more for how novelists use plot like a machine for developing characters and themes. Shortly thereafter I picked up Muriel Spark’s first novel, The Comforters.

It was wonderfully apt. In The Comforters, Caroline, a writer herself, begins hearing things one night when she goes to bed. She’s just been thinking about her boyfriend, Laurence, and how he’ll take her side if necessary regarding her early return from a retreat.

On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.

Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her lefft. It stopped, and ws immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.

Hearing her own thoughts voiced aloud, accompanied by typing noises, Caroline fairly flips out. The sounds continue, and after she wakes her whole building in her agitation she takes herself off to a friend’s house for the night, hoping to be comforted or at least distracted.

Thus begins the ingenious metafiction of The Comforters. It doesn’t take Caroline long to catch on to the game. Her friends and acquaintances think she’s crazy, but she decides to respond to the situation as if she really is inside a book. And she’s not going to just go along with what the author wants. Rather than let the writer push those gears of plot along, Caroline insists on gumming up the works.

When she hears that she and Laurence will take drive down to the country rather than taking the

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