Your novel Hot Milk (2016) has a physical quality that stung me like a blistering sunburn. Long after the last page had been turned, the heat could still be felt under the skin, like it usually happens at the end of a day spent under strong sun.
The novel revolves around 25-year-old anthropologist Sofia Papastergiadis, who currently works in a coffee shop in London. She has abandoned her PhD to take care of her ailing mother, Rose. “The unfinished thesis I wrote for my doctorate still lurks in a digital file behind my shattered screen saver like an unclaimed suicide.” Born in Britain, Sofia hasn’t seen her Greek father in 11 years, since he returned to Greece and married a much younger woman, with whom he has just had a new daughter.
Rose is a former librarian who is suffering from a mysteriously intermittent form of leg paralysis. Sofia has spent much of her life taking care of her mother, trying to solve the mystery of her elusive illness. Moreover, Sofia is suffering from another form of paralysis herself: unwilling to take responsibility for her own life, and probably using her mother as an excuse for not moving forward – “a shield to protect herself from making a life” -, Sofia is stuck in her life, afraid of “failing and falling and feeling.”
When the novel opens, Sofia and Rose are in Almería, on the Spanish coast of Andalusia, where, at considerable expense, they have travelled to so that Rose could attend the clinic of renowned but unorthodox physician, Dr. Gómez, in the hope that he might diagnose the mysterious illness. We don’t know if Rose’s medical symptoms are real or invented, if she is weak or manipulative, sick or a hypochondriac. Likewise, we don’t know if Sofia is being responsible towards her mother, or if she is using her mother’s illness to avoid taking responsibility over her own future. Who has become the crutch of whom?
Rose’s illness may or may not be a product of her imagination, so as Dr. Gómez may or may not be a quack. His eccentric approach casts a spell on Sofia, who starts to take small steps towards independence. She begins by taking two lovers – Juan, the beach lifeguard; and Ingrid Bauer, a German seamstress who may or may not be a borderline psychopath.
The story is set mainly in Almeria, with a brief interlude in Athens, where Sofia goes to meet her father Christos after a hiatus of eleven years. In Spain, the landscape is inhospitable: the heat is oppressive and envelops the characters in a cloud of torpor; the sea is filled with jellyfish, which are constantly stinging Sofia; the land is dry, bleak, “wind-beaten and sun-baked”, contributing to a sense of hopelessness. The fact that the story takes place sometime after the 2008 financial crash exacerbates the claustrophobic atmosphere of narrowing possibilities, the pervading sense of dread and menace. The economic stasis and the sense of defeat mirror Sofia’s own inability to move on with her life; the lack of confidence in the future and the sense of imminent threat mirror Rose’s own relationship with her symptoms. The fact that the characters leave their home in Britain, on the other hand, forces them to change. We know something will break, and it will happen soon.
The narrative is pervaded by a sense of unreality – as if the strangeness the characters feel in their new setting in Spain were mirrored in the strange events happening all around. The unreality is exacerbated by the fact that the story is narrated by Sofia, who is clearly not only lost but at the brink of losing her mind because of her mother. At the same time, this sense of unreality is filled with acute physical elements – we can almost feel the heat, the sunburns, the blisters, the burning stings of the jellyfish, the blood throbbing under the skin.
The fact that the narrative is layered with references to myths also exacerbates the sense of unreality. The jellyfish reoccur throughout the story, as Sofia is repeatedly stung by them while swimming. “When I flipped over I saw them in the water, the medusas, slow and calm like spaceships, delicate and dangerous. I felt a lashing, burning pain just under my left shoulder and started to swim back to shore. It was like being skinned alive as I was stung over and over again”. Known as Medusas in Spanish, the jellyfish assume a symbolic significance associated to the myth of Medusa – the snaky-haired female who was made monstrous because of her alluring sexuality; who can turn men into stone when they look at her; and who is in the end beheaded by the hero Perseus.
As a half-Greek anthropologist, Sofia is well versed in mythology. In relation to her mother’s illness, she imagines herself as a Medusa: “If I were to look at my mother just once in a certain way, I would turn her to stone. Not her, literally. I would turn the language of allergies, dizziness, heart palpitations and waiting for side effects to stone. I would kill this language stone dead.” Furthermore, much like the jellyfish in the sea, Sofia is adrift, floating through her life – and, at the same time, stuck in life, turned into stone. Medusa, as a symbol of female power and anger, also suffuses Sofia with a drive to change and conquer and break: every time she is stung by jellyfish, she emerges from the sea with hair like a coiled nest of snakes, and “the poison from the medusa sting” drives her to be bolder, and releases “some venom that was lurking inside” her.
Not only Sofia, but also Rose and Ingrid have Medusa-like qualities. Your book’s epigraph, taken from Hélène Cixous’ essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” – “It’s up to you to break the old circuits” – could refer to any of them. Rose has the power to freeze up her daughter’s life. Ingrid, on the other hand, moves Sofia into action, while also representing a threat: she may or may not have embroidered the word “Beheaded” in a top she gave to Sofia as a present.
Ingrid also incorporates other mythical elements: sometimes she’s presented like an Amazon, a female warrior wearing silver sandals laced up high (“Everything I know about myself is cracking, and Ingrid is the hammer”); she can be like Artemis, wild, riding a horse; or like Eros, holding a bow and arrow, and stinging Sofia into desire: “I do have work to do. I am studying Ingrid Bauer’s bow and arrow. It is magnifying in my mind until it becomes a weapon that can wound its prey. The bow is shaped like lips. The arrow’s tip is sharp. Why am I a monster to Ingrid? She thinks of me as some sort of creature. I am her creature. The tip of the arrow is aimed at my heart. I felt very light. Like an arrow in flight.” Ingrid has other magical qualities, too: everything she embroiders – a snake, a star, a cigar – seems to come to life (a snake is cut with an axe after a scene of lovemaking; Sofia muses about the Milky Way; her father smokes cigars).
The fraught relationship between Sofia and Rose is at the centre of your book, and assumes a mythical quality, infused by the tale of Demeter and Persephone. Sofia and Rose are both the victims and the abusers of their relationship: they are drifting between power exchanges, guilt, resentment and competitiveness. Having been abandoned by her husband, Rose might or might not be inventing ways to keep Sofia close by; unwilling to take the reins over her life, Sofia might or might not be using her mother as an excuse to her professional failure. “My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep”. Sofia is torn between her desire to protect her mother and not to act like her father did; her desire to take flight and break away from her childhood; and, finally, her need to protect herself from her mother. I cannot help but to identify Sofia with the badly treated dog chained to the neighbouring diving school terrace: he is constantly barking to get free, but, when finally released, he may or may not have drowned in the sea. He doesn’t know what to do with his freedom.
Milk is another element that pervades the story: the mother’s milk, the milk of human kindness to which Rose is subjected, the milk spoiled by the heat, the screensaver image of the Milky Way Sofia is always staring at, the breast-shaped marble dome of the Gomez Clinic. The title of the book makes me think of someone breastfeeding; it makes me think of spoiled milk, of love gone sour; and of a hot mess – a state of disarray, a self-destructive or sexy person, and a hot dish.
Yours is also a book about the hot mess of memory – “the struggle to live in all the dimensions between forgetting and remembering”. Not only Sofia’s PhD dissertation topic revolves around cultural memory, but also her relationship to her father is fraught by what must be forgotten. “Memory is a bomb”. When she goes to Athens, the economic crisis is only a background for her endeavour as emotional creditor of her father’s faults: “I have come to Athens to call in a debt my father owes me for never being around (…) as a result of his first default, my mother has a mortgage on my life.”
Narrated by Sofia, the book is irreverent, self-deprecating, full of dry humour, uncanny, fresh. Interspersed with Sofia’s narration, we have short-paragraphs that – like in a panoramic take – are narrated from the point of view of someone who seems to be spying on Sofia from a distance. It could be Juan, or Ingrid; it could be someone Sofia never met; it could be Sofia herself, or someone in her imagination; it could be an Oracle, or a Greek chorus.
Despite the manifold allusions and layers, the book is never heavy-handed. On the contrary, it is funny, dynamic, lively like the ever-moving sea. The highlight of the book for me is therefore its voice. You play with foreign languages, songs, misinterpretations. The narrative is deceptively embedded in realism: there is a dream-like atmosphere lurking behind the reality you create. I also like the ambiguous ending, with its understated, sobering effect: as if a shock of reality had forced the characters to let go of their grudges; had broken the circularity of their love-hate relationship; and had turned stone into flesh again.
“Anything covered is always interesting. There is never nothing beneath something that is covered.”
― Deborah Levy,
“History is the dark magician inside us, tearing at our liver.”
― Deborah Levy,
“I was flesh thirst desire dust blood lips cracking feet blistered knees skinned hips bruised, but I was so happy not to be napping on a sofa under a blanket with an older man by my side and a baby on my lap.”
― Deborah Levy,
“In the new quiet I heard the sea as if my ears were laid against the ocean floor. I could hear everything. The rumbling earthquake of a ship and spider crabs moving between weeds.”
― Deborah Levy,
About the book
- Hamish Hamilton, 2016, 218 p. Goodreads
- Bloomsbury, 2016, 218 p. Goodreads
- Man Booker Prize (2016) & Goldsmiths Prize Nominee (2016)
- My rating: 5 stars
- This book was read for 20 Books of Summer