Hot Milk – Deborah Levy

Just to forewarn you, this may be the most scathing review of this book you’ll find, and that may well be because I’m simply not clever enough to understand it.

I read Hot Milk because a couple of years ago I read another Man Booker nominee (and winner), The Luminaries, and then earlier this year I read a shortlisted nominee from 2015, A Little Life and thoroughly enjoyed both. I’ve met people who are quite critical of Man Booker, citing it as overly pretentious and I certainly understand their point of view, these aren’t easy reads, but my experience had been good and so I wanted to have a look through the short listed books from this year.

The winner, The Sellout, just didn’t really appeal to me. I’ll maybe give it a go at some point but when I was reading through the brief summaries provided on the Man Booker site, it was Hot Milk and Eileen that jumped out at me so I got both.

Hot Milk was sold to me as an exploration of female sexuality and the unmasking of a fractured mother daughter relationship – all interesting stuff and so even though it is set in Spain (don’t ask me why but books set in summer vacation spots just generally scream ‘boring!’ to me.), I gave it a chance.

I really wish I hadn’t bothered.

I consider myself a fairly accomplished reader. I don’t read trashy novels and I like books that are clever and make me think, plus I spent three years of my life doing a university degree that required my to read 3 literary books a week and have something to say about each of them, but I just didn’t get Hot Milk. It’s actually quite frustrating. I feel as if someone just needs to explain to me what it was actually about and then the light bulb will go on and I’ll find I loved it all along but I have yet to find someone who can do that.

The Penguin Random House site says it is ‘examining female rage and sexuality’ and, ok, I get that, but this seems to come at the expense of a meaningful plot.

We begin with the narrator, a half Greek girl named Sofia, getting stung by a jellyfish. The locals know these jellyfish as Medusas and the whole story of Medusa kind of hangs about in the background of the story, but why? I just don’t know. Sofia sort of flits about, drifting from one problem to the next, one lover to the next, one identity crisis to the next, while her mother sits at home. Her mother, Rose, is the whole reason they’re here. She is a hardy Yorkshire woman who has been independent from the word ‘go’ but has now been struck by this very strange ailment that seems to prevent her from walking when it suits her.

They’re here in Spain because no doctor in the U.K. could give a satisfactory diagnosis for this odd affliction and so they’ve sought out a notably alternative Spanish medic to give them some answers.

This Spanish doctor probably represents something but I really couldn’t tell you what. He likes cats and has a pretty daughter who likes beer and his clinic is depicted more like a deserted day spa than a surgery. He treats Rose by conversing endlessly with both mother and daughter, playing mind games with them as he half-heartedly tries to diagnose the issue. Is he for real or not? We just don’t know.

While all this is going on, Sofia is embarking on a series of romantic trysts with some people she’s met hanging about on the beach, ignoring her sick mum. She meets a German girl who has an American boyfriend and begins an affair with her. She seems to be friends with both of them, as far as there can be such a positive relationship in this book, but the boyfriend never seems to suspect a thing. The girl makes her a dress with a word she fails to read properly on it and it all just goes a bit strange.

She also has a fling with the student medic on the beach who keeps treating her when she keeps getting stung by the jellyfish (just stop swimming in the sea!). This is nice, he seems like a good guy but she shies away from this good relationship, as she’s not great at going after things that make her happy.

I really don’t know if I’m giving away too much as, to be honest, I’m really not sure what are important details and what aren’t!

Sofia goes on a journey of self-discovery of sorts near the end of the book. She often mentions that she’s half Greek and doesn’t really know her Greek father who has now found God and a young wife, and she goes the visit him in the final phase of the book, making peace of sorts with who she is and where she comes from.

I guess everything stems from the title. ‘Hot Milk’ has been said to be symbolic of mother’s milk, so the fraught relationship described in the book. It’s also a website for maternity underwear but I’m not sure that’s what the author was getting at. I guess it’s mirroring the way the Spanish sun has ‘heated’ these women, making them act as they do. The fact is though that neither character is likeable. Sofia is selfish and the mother is presented as quite flighty and manipulative.

I’ll end on some things I did like. This is beautifully written in terms of style and voice. Even now, just thinking about it, I can feel that oppressive, lazy heat and can see scenes as if I’d watched it all in a film, rather than reading it in a book. It is also fascinating. I hope I’ve gotten across that this may all be a failing on my part rather than that of a book. I like having answers and maybe I’m just not up to getting them here, but I want them.

Looking at reviews on Goodreads it seems I’m not alone. This has a mix of generally 3 star and 5 star reviews, the 3 star ones saying much the same as me, ‘nice but don’t get it’ while the 5 stars are saying ‘no real plot but great characters’. Maybe I’m just a plot person?

I’m sorry this wasn’t more positive and, like I say, I feel like I’m just missing something. Let me know if you’ve read it and had a similar or far better experience with it. I’m curious to know what interpretations of it people have.

Currently Reading: 
Book: Boundary, by Andree A. Michaud
Audio: How Will I Know You?, by Jessica Treadway

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