In the opening pages of Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, the novel’s protagonist Sofia describes being stung by medusa jellyfish whilst swimming in the sea off the coast of Almeria in southern Spain. She heads across the beach to the injury hut, where she is asked to complete her details on a form that looked like a petition, “to keep the injury hut open in the Spanish recession”.
“He handed me a pencil stub and asked me to please fill in the form.
Name: Sofia Papastergiadis
Country of origin: UK
The jellyfish don’t care about my occupation, so what is the point? It is a sore point, more painful than my sting and more of a problem than my surname which no one can say or spell. I told him I have a degree in anthropology but for the time being I work in a cafe in West London – it’s called the Coffee House and it’s got free Wi-Fi and renovated church pews. We roast our own beans and make three types of artisan espresso…so I don’t know what to put under ‘Occupation’.”
Any other purpose Sofia may have in life has been overridden by her role as carer to her mother, Rose, who suffers from a mysterious illness affecting her feet and legs. But she is not just carer, she is also the “main witness” to her mother’s condition and carries out a kind of ongoing study of her inconsistent symptoms.
They are in Spain for Rose to receive treatment from the Gomez Clinic, an institution of unusual and unorthodox medical practice, run by Mr Gomez, a doctor of unclear medical training and specialty. Rose and Sofia’s experiences at the clinic take on an almost dreamlike experience, with a series of strange consultations in strange surroundings. Occasionally escaping her mother’s oppression, the rest of Sofia’s life in Spain takes a similarly unsettling, dreamlike course. She meets Ingrid Bauer, an unconventional German ex-pat living locally with her boyfriend Matthew, and who earns money by re-modelling and embroidering vintage clothes to sell. Ingrid is mysterious, threatening and exciting, and Sofia struggles to establish her place in their relationship, just as in the rest of her life. She ultimately finds herself in an arrangement which is part love affair, part power struggle, and which remains unpredictable to the end.
Even the most grounded section of the novel, in which Sofia travels to Athens to visit her estranged father and his new young family, caught up in the midst of the greek financial crisis, has its sense of otherworldliness. Her father’s new wife is just four years older than herself, their apartment is covered in framed posters of Donald Duck, and her father seems fixated on ensuring his family is frequently asleep. He is “the anaesthetist of their household”.
This is the first novel by Deborah Levy that I have read, and I absolutely loved the writing style. Told from the point of view of Sofia, the writing tracks the inner workings of her mind as she makes her way through this strange world so simply and so beautifully. Sofia is self-centred but perceptive, and her narration only adds to the somewhat hallucinatory feel of the novel. I very much recommend Hot Milk as a truly immersive read, and I will definitely be looking out for Levy’s other novels in future.