Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

“My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep.”

Set on the Andalusian coast, where 25-year-old Sofia has accompanied her mother in an attempt to get to the bottom of Rose’s mysterious (and apparently temperamental) leg paralysis, Hot Milk is a masterful exploration of the interior life of a woman whose life and identity have been subsumed by those of her parents.

deborah-levy-hot-milkHalf-Greek, Sofia and her mother have lived in London ever since her father, Christos, deserted them and returned to Greece when Sofia was a child. Sofia was part-way through a PhD in anthropology before having to give it up and look after her mother when the mysterious illness began. Rose claims complete numbness in her legs, yet can feel a fly land on her foot and can occasionally walk a short distance. Sofia, when not at Rose’s beck and call (she is admonished for repeatedly bringing Rose “the wrong sort of water”), has devoted herself to trying to get to the bottom of the paralysis, even taking on her mother’s limping gait. “My legs are her legs.”

The investigation has brought them to the clinic of the bizarre Dr Gomez and his daughter Julieta – or Nurse Sunshine as Gomez refers to her – via the bank to remortgage their house to pay for the treatment. Gomez, though, may or may not be a total quack and many of his methods are deeply questionable. Not all of them, though. He immediately liberates Sofia, instructing her that she is not to come to her mother’s appointments (much to the annoyance of Rose), leaving her whole days to fill as she pleases. She meets a German woman, Ingrid, and her boyfriend Matthew. She swims in the sea and is repeatedly stung by medusa jellyfish, necessitating treatment in the injury hut by Juan. She frees a dog who has been chained up and barking incessantly since their arrival in Spain. She even goes to austerity-constricted Greece to visit her father for the first time in over a decade. All the time she is trying to gather together some sense of who she is; when asked to fill in a form in the injury hut she pauses when asked to state her occupation. She still thinks of herself as an anthropologist though she has been making ends meet by working in a London coffee shop while looking after her mother. How ironic that she has spent years studying the study of human beings but can barely understand herself. Revelations occur throughout Hot Milk, though few, if any, are brought about on purpose.

It is a stunning, disorientating book permeated with a sort of dreamlike, other-worldly quality. The truth can only be revealed far from ordinary life.

Deborah Levy: Hot Milk (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2016) ISBN 9780241146545, RRP £12.99

One comment on “Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

  1. Jackie
    November 15, 2016

    While I was reading your review, I was thinking it sounded “dream like” and then you use those very words at the end. At the moment, this sounds a little to close to home for me to read, but you’ve made me curious and I’d like to see how the stories turn out. It’s a situation that is not often portrayed in books, yet is increasingly common in real life.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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