‘Hot Milk’ is a novel by Deborah Levy, published on the 24th March 2016 by Penguin Books. It follows Sofia and her chronically ill mother to the beaches of Spain – their final hope to find a cure for the strange illness that has been baffling doctors for years.
I greatly enjoyed ‘Hot Milk’. It was small enough that I could read it in one go on the train, which was ideal. The Spain it depicted was alternately lush, bleak, blisteringly hot and as cool as marble. Every opportunity was taken to deepen the landscape and the characterisation, which, having read rather plot-heavy novels of late, was very refreshing.
The novel was extremely well-written, especially the passages in which the beauty and violence of the Spanish coast is described. The recurring motif of the medusa jellyfish was one that will stick with me for a long time. The combination of myth and nature and monstrous violence worked very, very well. There were also many beautiful passages about fashion and the creation of art, which in the hands of a lesser writer could have been boring and overdone. This was anything but that.
The themes that the novel deals with are interesting – the relationship between parents and children, the nature of identity, and chronic illness. I thought that the one best handled was that of identity – Sofia is Greek and English and a waitress, but somehow also none of these things. I found her to be a very intense and interesting character, and although she was a bit too academic for my liking at times, I thought that the use of academic language, particularly that of anthropology, worked very well. I…was less convinced by the chronic illness side of the novel. Her mother was in no way defined by her illness, which was refreshing, and there did seem to be an attempt to explore the psychological nature of pain and sickness. At times though, it did feel very much like the mother was simply wallowing in the illness just because she could – and with a little effort, she could magically fix herself. I don’t know whether this is what the author wanted to say, but it just didn’t sit right with me. Illness isn’t conquered by sheer enthusiasm about life. It’s just not.
In all, I would recommend this, just for the language alone. I wouldn’t go into it looking for a new perspective upon chronic illness, I’ll be honest, but everything else it discusses is explored with nuance and tantalising ambiguity.