book review

Book Review: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

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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

Age: 25

Country of origin: UK

Occupation:

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.

The Best Books I Read in 2016

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I’ve read some brilliant books this year, although one of the few downsides of travelling less for work means I get less time on trains for reading! Here are five favourites from 2016’s reading list.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

After I finished A Little Life back in the Spring, I found it very difficult for a long time to pick up another novel. I read the last 100 or so pages in one intense evening, barely noticing the dusk falling around me, and by the end I felt so entwined in the lives of the characters that the idea of moving on and no longer having them in my life felt almost unbearable.

Such was the press attention on this novel when it was nominated for, and ultimately missed out on, the 2015 Booker Prize, that it is probably unnecessary for me to go into too much detail about its plot, its characters, and its themes. At its heart, the novel is the story of a life: that of Jude, who has survived extreme childhood abuse. More broadly, it is the story of the lives of those close to him, who experience their own ups and downs, but who are in a way bound together by his survival. What I love most about this novel is the sheer amount of feelings it inspires: from peace to sadness, from joy to devastation, from love to disgust.  It really is like reading an entire and incredible life, lived out on its pages.

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

I read this very quickly in October whilst travelling a lot, so I got deeply engrossed in its eerie gothic atmosphere. The novel tells the story of two young brothers, taken on an Easter retreat by their deeply religious parents to The Loney, a dismal stretch of northern English coastline.

Younger brother Hanny is mute, communicating with his older brother by showing objects he carries in his pockets: a rabbit’s tooth, a toy dinosaur, a gorilla mask. Their parents don’t share this language, and even their names, ‘Mummer’ and ‘Farther’ add to their sense of distance from the brother’s world.

The family make a religious retreat to the Loney accompanied by an assortment of pious friends and their new vicar, who is struggling to fill the boots of his recently deceased predecessor. Their aim is to lose themselves in Easter prayer, but most importantly to visit a shrine so that Hanny may drink from the holy water. It is believed by all that this will cure his lack of speech.

The landscape at The Loney is desperately bleak, reflecting the mood of the visitors. Despite being spring it is constantly damp: the rain sweeps in from the sea in “huge vaporous curtains”, the beach is “brown sludge”. The locals are a mysterious and threatening presence. Moorings, the oppressive house in which they are forced by the weather to spend most of their time, is damp and full of creepy relics of its former occupants. Even the local church leaks. It is the perfect backdrop for the characters to simmer gently over the heat of religious fervour and repressed emotional turmoil until the book’s feverish and macabre conclusion is reached.

There are occasional hints at the supernatural in the novel. At one point, a hawthorn is found in bloom, well ahead of the season. Only a matter of a few words are given over to this occurrence, and so you could almost blink and miss it, but it’s a hint at another layer in this already richly layered novel. One of the most atmospheric, unnerving and exciting novels I have read in a long time.

The Past by Tessa Hadley

I love Tessa Hadley’s writing, so as soon as I saw this had come out in paperback I picked it up.

I’ve seen a few comments on Goodreads which had described this novel as being one in which nothing happens. OK, so it’s not an action packed war epic or anything like that, but saying ‘nothing happens’ could not be further from the truth. The whole novel simmers with subtle tension, as four siblings, their families and hangers-on gather at the large ramshackle house in the countryside that belonged to their now deceased parents. Ostensibly, they are gathered to spend time together and consider what should be done with the house, but it is not long before their decision-making process becomes muddled and relationships are tested by both the inescapable echoes of the past and the pressures and compulsions of the present.

The Past is a beautiful study of familial relationships, different personalities and the impulses that drive us, and reading it made me feel both reflective and happy to be alive.

How to be Both by Ali Smith

Oh how I love Ali Smith. I unwrapped her latest novel Autumn on Christmas Day and it is now at the very top of my reading list for 2017 (just as soon as I have finished Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent).

How to be Both was a joyful crash landing into the lives of two wonderfully strong characters, one a modern day teenager (George) dealing with the death of her mother, one a fresco painter (Francesco) living in renaissance Italy, whose worlds cross in unexpected ways despite living centuries apart. The novel is in two separate parts, one for each character, and it is fantastically vibrant. Even though I finished it months ago, some of the images, particularly the descriptions of the colours and details in the frescoes, remain completely clear in my mind.  George’s frequent moments of grief are also incredibly real and moving, especially her struggle to get to grips with how her mother could exist, and then not exist, simply through the passing of time.

My version of the novel had George’s story first, then Francesco’s. Some versions were the other way round (most critics seem to have had Francesco’s first). I wonder how different my experience would have been the other way round. The links between the two parts of the novel become clear in the second part, and its true depth and intelligence become apparent quite suddenly, but I imagine that is the case whichever way round you read them. It’s a supremely clever and original novel, and ultimately just a joy to read.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I picked this up just after the Booker Prize for 2016 was announced (I know, it didn’t win!) and finished it a couple of weeks ago. I absolutely loved this novel, and found it completely and utterly engrossing. It is also very innovative, the story being revealed through in an almost piecemeal fashion, presented as a collection of ‘found’ documents, including a diary account, witness statements, and newspaper reports.

The subject of these documents is the brutal murder of a man and two children in a remote Highlands community, by the son of a crofter whose family have found themselves marginalised from their neighbours through various events. Although the reader knows from the outset what has happened and who is responsible, the detail of the events is revealed slowly and from a number of different perspectives, meaning that your understanding of the characters and your sympathies shift backwards and forwards throughout the novel.

Don’t dismiss this as simply a crime novel. Whilst it is a truly enjoyable story of a crime, it is also much more than that: it is a fantastic literary novel.