A divorcee in her sixties named Rose travels to Almería to see a specialist, who may or may not be a quack, about a mystery ailment that may or may not be imagined. She is accompanied by her daughter, Sophie, who is stuck in a mid-twenties rut, suffering from a holy trinity of career limbo, sexual confusion and unresolved issues regarding her estranged father. In an ordinary novel, Sophie’s seduction on an Andalusian beach by a German borderline psychopath named Ingrid might have constituted the focal point of the story. But Deborah Levy is no ordinary novelist, and the salacious titbits in her seventh novel are a mere foil. Hot Milk is an exploration of filial and maternal love, memory and the reciprocal bonds of duty and obligation. Sophie’s lesbian infatuation is just a form of procrastinatory acting-out, an intense hero worship born of insecurity and emotional vulnerability.
The tale is told from Sophie’s perspective, but its unlikely star is the mercurial doctor, Gómez, whose laconically astute insights belie his inauspiciously shamanic aspect. It is Gómez who calls out Sophie’s ennui (‘You are using your mother like a shield to protect yourself from making a life’) and challenges her to become bolder. The first assignment he sets her is to purloin a fish from the local market. It must be neither too big nor too small. As for her mother, he is wryly sceptical of her symptoms: ‘It is the vitality she puts into not walking that concerns me,’ he tells Sophie. For her part, Rose is steely and inscrutable, with occasional bouts of whimsy. She purchases a garish watch studded with fake diamonds from an African street vendor and declares, ‘This is the bling to see me out.’
Hot Milk frequently pans from the personal to the political. The waters of Almería’s beaches are infested with jellyfish, portentous refugees from a damaged ecosystem; Sophie ruminates on the conditions endured by local agricultural workers and the developing-world origins of various consumer goods; the privations of austerity economics are everywhere apparent. Indeed, the book’s preoccupation with kinship feels acutely relevant. In years to come, the profound societal impact of an ageing population will prompt more of us to reflect, like Sophie, on how a ‘wife can be a mother to her husband and a son can be a husband or a mother to his mother and a daughter can be a sister or a mother to her mother who can be a father and a mother to her daughter’.
If there is a nit to be picked, it is that the book is almost excessively well crafted. That’s a perverse complaint, perhaps, but Hot Milk’s intricate web of allusions and analogies is quite remarkably just so. Sophie’s stalled doctorate is on cultural memory, and memory – ‘the struggle to live in all the dimensions between forgetting and remembering’ – is really what the whole novel is about. (Ingrid, in a rare moment of lucidity, opines that ‘Memory is a bomb’.) Sophie’s father is Greek and her brief sojourn to crisis-stricken Athens prompts a slightly strained topical metaphor about emotional creditors and debtors.
Hot Milk packs an awful lot into relatively few pages. It is more thematically ambitious than Levy’s 2011 Booker Prize-shortlisted Swimming Home. Perhaps as a consequence it lacks some of the ethereal minimalism of that earlier novel. It is nonetheless a triumph of technically adroit storytelling. Levy’s elegant and poised prose has the rare quality of being simultaneously expansive and succinct, a talent that lends itself especially well to describing the battlefield of family tension, with its taciturn standoffs, pregnant remarks and recriminatory snipes. In a literary marketplace where, it seems, psychological portraits must be both elephantine in size and diarrhoeic in consistency in order to be deemed convincing, Levy’s frugality and deftness are a breath of fresh air.