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Hot Milk

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Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother's unexplainable illness. She's frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and Rose travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant, Dr. Gomez—their very last chance—in the hope that he might cure Rose's unpredictable limb paralysis, but Dr. Gomez has strange methods that seem to have little to do with physical medicine, and as the treatment progresses, Rose's illness becomes increasingly baffling. Sofia's role as detective—tracking Rose's symptoms in an attempt to find the secret motivation for her pain—deepens as she discovers her own desires in this transient desert community.

218 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2015

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About the author

Deborah Levy

54 books2,180 followers
Deborah Levy trained at Dartington College of Arts leaving in 1981 to write a number of plays, highly acclaimed for their "intellectual rigour, poetic fantasy and visual imagination", including PAX, HERESIES for the Royal Shakespeare Company, CLAM, CALL BLUE JANE, SHINY NYLON, HONEY BABY MIDDLE ENGLAND, PUSHING THE PRINCE INTO DENMARK and MACBETH-FALSE MEMORIES, some of which are published in LEVY: PLAYS 1 (Methuen)

Deborah wrote and published her first novel BEAUTIFUL MUTANTS (Vintage), when she was 27 years old. The experience of not having to give her words to a director, actors and designer to interpret, was so exhilarating, she wrote a few more. These include, SWALLOWING GEOGRAPHY, THE UNLOVED (Vintage) and BILLY and GIRL (Bloomsbury). She has always written across a number of art forms (see Bookworks and Collaborations with visual artists) and was Fellow in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1989-1991.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,742 reviews
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,738 reviews14.1k followers
August 31, 2016
So I finished this book, am shaking my head and thinking what a strange little book this was. Additionally I am sure that there is much I have missed in symbolism and a deeper meaning I am just not getting. A mother and a daughter, either the mother is very ill or using her illness as a passive aggressive gesture? A 25 year old daughter, who has delayed her thesis in order to take care of her mother, a seriously bad co-dependent relationship. The daughter does not have much in the way of gumption, allows herself to be mistreated by her mother, has problems standing up for herself. A clinic in Spain, last ditch effort to find out what is wrong with the mother. Is the clinic's doctor, call me Gomez, a brilliant clinician or a fraud? So in Spain, much changes, and the strangeness begins.

Unlikable characters form the most part, a dreamlike vibe from the story, wonderful writing but a book open to each person's own interpretations. I seriously can't predict how other readers sill feel about this one, not even sure how I feel about it.

ARC from Netgalley.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,050 followers
September 15, 2016
Despite the multiple negative reviews on this one, including the New York Times review that describes this novel as wanting in narrative, I really loved this book! It just goes to show you that not every book is for every reader, and that we all look for different things when we read. I thought when I liked it and others didn't that it didn't have a shot for the Man Booker prize, but the day after I finished it, it was named to the shortlist for 2016.
"I am overflowing like coffee leaking from a paper cup. I wonder, shall I make myself smaller? Do I have enough space on Earth to make myself less?"
I have read Deborah Levy before, but this is by far my favorite of hers. In the past I felt her playwright bent would sometimes dictate how she told a story, as if she was visualizing it in a staging sort of way. In this novel, the characters have rich and complicated internal lives. The way she writes them had traces of Jeanette Winterson in her earlier works, the always thinking and feeling characters where plot is secondary. And I mean that as a compliment, since Winterson remains in my top three authors and likely always will. So the style, the narrative, shall we say, really worked for me. The reader is left faced with either filling in the gaps or discovering that "what happens" isn't the point so much as the transformative journey of the inner lives.
"I am pulsating with shifting sexualities.
I am sex on tanned legs in suede platform sandals.
I am urban and educated and currently godless."
Other elements that made me enjoy this novel are the character having a background of anthropology (female anthropologists being a notable trend in several of my favorite reads.) There is something about the approach of anthropology, how it notices, how it attempts to gain an inside perspective, that makes it really work in internal dialogue.
"If anthropology is the study of humankind from its beginning millions of years ago to this day, I am not very good at studying myself. I have researched aboriginal culture, Mayan hieroglyphics and the corporate culture of a Japanese car manufacturer, and I have written essays on the internal logic of various other societies, but I haven't a clue about my own logic. Suddenly that was the best thing that ever happened to me."
I should also mention the impact of the the limited landscape of an unpleasant Spanish coastal town (where jellyfish fill the water and factories and concrete line the shore) and the element of an adult child dealing with the real or imagined illness of a parent. She captures the strangeness of a mother who demands attention, even from her child.
"Her symptoms do all the talking for her. They chatter all the time."

"I told her the beach was desolate and that I had been staring for two hours of a pile of gas canisters. It was my special skill to make my day smaller so as to make her day bigger."
ETA: After thinking about this one more, I'm raising my rating to five stars.
Profile Image for Fionnuala.
779 reviews
May 4, 2022
I’ve written a lot of book reviews recently in which alcohol had a leading role. It was unavoidable—I'd been reading the works of François Rabelais and Flann O’Brien, both of whom favour scenarios where quantities of beer and wine are consumed.
Goodreaders who follow my reviews may have had enough of such alcoholic ramblings so I thought I’d write about hot milk today for a change.

Not that I expect to find many goodreaders who like hot milk. Is there anyone who really finds hot milk palatable—unless it has chocolate powder mixed in. The hot milk I remember from childhood had no chocolate powder added. What it did have was a skin floating on top and I always considered that skin to be something quite horrible. The idea that the skin might touch my mouth was unbearable to contemplate. My mother used to stir the milk and break up the skin but I still knew it was there and was certain I would feel it even though she insisted it wasn't there anymore. In any case, I stubbornly refused to drink the milk and she stubbornly persisted in offering it to me. She must have despaired that her daughter would ever grow up with good teeth and strong bones.

There’s a stubborn mother and daughter duo in Deborah Levy’s latest book, and many references to the strength of bones—though oddly enough there’s no indication that any of the book’s themes has anything to do with the title. I didn’t find a single mention of hot milk but there are several references to warm milk as in breast milk, and also lots of references to heat since the events of the novel mostly happen along the jellyfish infested coastline of Almeria in southern Spain. A puzzle.

The book is a puzzle quite apart from the title. I understood the anthropology themes and the hypochondriac themes and the psychological themes around neglect and guilt but I had a feeling all the time that there was something else under the surface that I wasn't able to see but that I should be seeing. It unsettled me and affected my reading. My mother would have said it was all in my imagination and that there was nothing else there.
That old milk skin problem.
Profile Image for LA Cantrell.
424 reviews544 followers
December 23, 2017
A marbled white dome, its creamy walls veined with blue minerals, is the place of last resort for a mother-daughter pair looking for answers. It is a posh medical clinic set in an artificial oasis of flowers in the area of Andalusia, Spain. There are smaller yellowed domes also dotting the nearby Spanish desert, and inside them work migrants - slaves, really -who toil inside the geodesic greenhouses to bring about fruit where there should be none.

This dreamlike story is dotted with blatant symbolism throughout. It is as bold in its flaunting of mother's milk, the stars of the Milky Way, and the mythological pathos of the Greek family as the tale's protagonist is lacking in any boldness whatsoever. Sofia is a milquetoast, a submissive servant to her 67 year old mother who suffers from a yet-to-be diagnosed condition that numbs and paralyses her feet.

We learn that Sofia Papastergiadis is a degreed anthropologist who has stalled her doctoral dissertation to live as caregiver for her long-divorced mother, Rose, in England. Her father returned to Greece when Sofia was small, abandoning them financially, and Rose took on the role of both mother and father over the years. As her mother's physical condition has recently and sharply deteriorated, Sofie has not just paused, but abandoned her degrees and become a barista and waitress. Her experience at home makes her excellent at waiting on people. At waiting period.

When the two re-mortgage the house to travel to the pricey clinic on the dry, southern coast of Spain, Sofie must spend an entire summer waiting - doing nothing but swimming in the sea and waiting for her mother's treatments at the clinic to take hold. The oily waters are plagued with stinging jellyfish - medusas with long tentacles that still fire when separated from the body of their floating parental orbs. The recurring medusa jellyfish are the obvious tie to the snake-headed Medusa of Greek mythology, but what Sofia wants most is to use that sort of power to make the her mother's symptoms petrify and die so that she might be freed . But she is not bold enough, not bold at all. "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."

Sofie's experiences on this strange geographical coastline are surreal, and she confuses little bits of reality. Is her mother, stuck in the wheelchair, really able to walk to the hair salon or did she merely dream it? She mistakes different women for men, misreads written words for those that are violently different, and is attracted to both a young female and a young male in the seaside village. Androgyny is referenced here and there in the story, and Ziggy Stardust comes into the tale several times. As the stinging medusas are, as the author puts it, "floating in a most peculiar way," so too is Sofie.

This is an exquisitely well written character study, and while our heroine is 25 years old, she is emotionally delayed in her development. I would call Hot Milk a coming of age story with the colors of blue and white playing mainstage with stabs of bright yellow popping in. Blue, venomous snakes and starfish appear in this sexually symbolic drama where even names have meaning. While it is not noted in the book, I noticed that the mother is an English Rose and the Greek Orthodox father is called Christos. Sofie's surname is unpronounceable by most, but it starts with the sound of 'Papa', and aster is the Greek stem word for "star." I think this author is far more clever than we know. This would be an outstanding choice for a college lit class. The overt symbolism is pure fun to identify but there is incredible depth too.

For those who might be put off by two women kissing (it is not Sofie and her mom, don't worry!), I'd say that it wasn't something I was at all expecting, but since the title is so obviously emblematic of the female breast, it fits. Hot milk is the sustenance we all live off as infants, and for a mother-daughter tale, the title is perfect. Considering the manipulation and complications of this particular relationship, however, there is one little trivial tidbit that is exceptionally fitting.

The story tells us that Sofie, a barista, has taken hours-long instruction in how to perfectly froth hot milk. But while it is not stated in the story, anybody working at a coffee house knows this: if you boil milk too long - it turns acidic.

There truly is some acid in Hot Milk and I loved it.
Profile Image for Robin.
484 reviews2,624 followers
March 1, 2017
Mothering, or lack of it, is at the heart of this eccentric, breast-laden book. Breasts everywhere, this is a bosomy paradise that features white, blue veined marble domed buildings, the tell-tale wet shirt of a nursing mother, a woman selling melons by the road, an entire scene that plays out with our heroine Sofia accidentally and unknowingly topless, and even the book's apt title. The female form is everywhere, reminding Sofia of the mothering she missed out on. The chesty symbolism protrudes from every other page.

It's understandable that Sofia feels un-nurtured. She's the spineless daughter of Rose, a narcissistic "career invalid" whose legs work intermittently, as if by whim. Sofia has abandoned her PhD anthropology degree (and pretty much everything else) to be at her mother's beck and call. No one can figure out what ails Rose. As a last resort, they re-mortgage the house and go to the prestigious Gomez Clinic in Spain, in the hopes that she can be cured.

I am my mother's burden. She is my creditor and I pay her with my legs. They are always running around for her.

This story is told in a dreamy yet accessible, stream-of-consciousness style. We are privy to pretty much every inner thought and observation of Sofia's. This is the telling of her internal transformation - a transformation coming a little late, at 25. She has taken on her mother so much that she feels her pain and even emits her (imagined) symptoms such as her limp. Eclipsed by her mother, Sofia does not know her own self yet, and has not come into her womanhood. This time in Spain is her chance to figure it out. Themes of androgyny and sexuality pervade the hot, seaside landscape. She has affairs with a man and a woman. She is also repeatedly stung by the nasty, placenta-shaped Medusa jellyfish.

The oddly wise "shaman" Dr. Gomez tells her that she lacks boldness. She ends up searching for it, by visiting her selfish and estranged father, and by deciding whether she is going to let her mother's illness mug her of her life and future.

My mother's feet are mostly on strike, but I'm not sure what she is negotiating for or what the deal breaker would be.

I loved my reading experience, seeing Sofia's transformation. I relished the journey all the way through to the 'deal breaker'. It was funny, clever, and rich with symbolism. Deborah Levy impressed me by evoking the complex inner world of these characters in a memorable and uniquely feminine way.
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,154 reviews1,694 followers
March 8, 2023

Seconda volta che leggo l’anglo-sudafricana Deborah Levy (A nuoto verso casa la prima) e non posso non rimarcare la vena di eccentricità che serpeggia costante nelle sue pagine: Rose, la mamma della venticinquenne Sophie, o Sofia, che è l’io narrante, soffre di un dolore muscolare o articolare o neurologico che le impedisce di camminare tutte le volte che ha qualcuno a distanza ravvicinata da cui potersi far sorreggere; la tedesca Inge indossa scarpe da uomo con i pantaloncini corti, scarpe che ha molto desiderato, ma presto le butta in mare; il dottor Gomez, primario e proprietario della costosa clinica privata spagnola, è un concentrato di bizzarrie, da come parla a come e cosa mangia a come si muove e gesticola. Eccetera.
Tutto e tutti sembrano essere una cosa e anche un’altra, questo e quello. Per esempio, malata e sana, americano e spagnolo, inglese e greca. Fermo e in movimento. Bella e mostruosa. Eccetera.
Ma la Levy ha la capacità di rendere l’improbabile verosimile.

Beheaded Medusa

Alla lista delle eccentricità aggiungerei la traduzione italiana del titolo che da Hot Milk diventa il lacrimoso e secondo me malriuscito Come l’acqua che spezza la polvere che io continuo a leggere come l’acqua che spazza la polvere.
D’altra parte Hot Milk ha davvero poco a che spartire con l’assolata lunare Almería (Spagna del sud) dove la storia della Levy è in grandissima parte ambientata, tra meduse e Medusa, umori strani, crisi finanziaria e confini fatti di sabbia.

I numerosi capitoli, tutti abbastanza brevi, sono spesso intervallati da altri ancora più brevi, proprio minuscoli e scritti in corsivo che esprimono una voce diversa da quella della narratrice Sofia Papastergiadis, o Sophie, o Zoffie come la chiama la sua nuova amica tedesca Ingrid Bauer, Inge.


Sofia sembra rimuginare di continuo: il romanzo non ha la struttura del flusso di coscienza, ci sono numerosi dialoghi e descrizioni, ma dello stream of consciousness ha il suono e il ritmo ipnotico, probabilmente proprio per via del ruminare mentale della protagonista e narratrice.
Sofia spesso non risponde alle domande che le pongono: se le ripete tra sé e sé e la risposta rimane solo mentale, forse perduta dietro le altre mille domande che le sgorgano nella ricerca del senso della vita e di se stessa.
Un rimestio interiore che ha ereditato dalla sua situazione familiare: il padre greco ha lasciato la sua madre inglese e lei bambina per tornare ad Atene dove si è rifatto una nuova famiglia sposando una ragazza di quarant’anni più giovane che ha ancora l’apparecchio per i denti e mettendo al mondo una creaturina che è la sorella minore di Sophie. Si è convertito al cattolicesimo, o qualcosa di simile, prega, ringrazia per il cibo, e minaccia di lasciare l’intera eredità in beneficienza.
Dal lato materno l’eredità è una catena di depressioni e anaffettività: nel primo caso, la stessa madre e la nonna materna – nel secondo caso entrambi i nonni materni.

Almadraba de Monteleva

Nel suo modo sghembo Deborah Levy scrive un romanzo sul rapporto madre e figlia.
Niente madri “cattive” e figlie oscure, dalle sue parti. Ma fragilità, distanza, scarsa comunicazione. Sophie ha dedicato la vita ad accudire la madre finta o vera paralitica, ha perfino rinunciato al suo dottorato in antropologia. Eppure, da qualche parte, è probabile ci sia una stella anche per lei, dedicata a lei, che possa fungere da luce guida. Da faro.
Magari nella Via Lattea. Se nona ltro per giustificare l’hot milk.

In arabo Almería significa “specchio del mare”.

Punta de Cerro Negro

Playa de los Muertos, per nudisti.

Las Presillas Bajas.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,137 reviews8,151 followers
August 13, 2016
I just didn't really get this one. Nice writing, but the story was all over the place and the dialogue was unnatural.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,256 reviews49 followers
September 30, 2016
A haunting, enigmatic and dreamlike story analysing a daughter's relationship with her mother and the damage they inflict on one another.

On the surface not much happens - Sofia accompanies her mother Rose to a desert beach resort in Spain where they attend a local clinic to find the mysterious ailment that prevents her mother walking, and has various affairs interspersed with a visit to her Greek father and his new family. The surface story is insignificant but full of symbolic resonances. Like Ali Smith, Levy is very perceptive at identifying connections, and her characters are fully realised, and she fully inhabits their psychological dilemmas.

I am struggling to convey what is great about this book and why I enjoyed it - it is full of striking sentences and observations, often slippery and cryptic, but never hard to read, and it would make a worthy Booker winner. I will certainly be reading more Levy.
Profile Image for Andrew Smith.
1,052 reviews582 followers
May 23, 2021
Sophia is twenty-five years old and possesses the dark Mediterranean looks of her Greek father. She’s clever too – in the academic sense, at least – having completed a master’s degree in Anthropology. She’s currently working in a London coffee shop whilst struggling to finish her doctoral thesis. So a trip to southern Spain to accompany her mother, who is seeking a cure for a mystery debilitating illness, seems like just the ticket.

Whilst there, she swims and fetches water (always the ‘wrong’ water) for her mother. The rest of the time she spends studying her mother’s symptoms, looking for clues to unlock the mystery of her inability to use her legs. We are introduced to some interesting characters: the unorthodox Dr. Gomez and lifeguard Juan, who is regularly called upon to smear soothing ointment to combat her many jellyfish stings, amongst them. In time Sophia meets Ingrid and a mutual attraction quickly develops.

This is a clever book. I did expect the dialogue to be intelligent, and sometimes funny, because I’d found that to be the highlight of her last novel, Swimming Home. And it certainly didn’t disappoint in this respect. But I’d also found her last book to be a little soulless, inhabited by characters I found hard to engage with, and I found that to be the case here too. But it’s a relatively quick read and I think many will appreciate the well observed study of the mother and daughter relationship that’s at the core of this story.

My thanks to Penguin Books (UK) and NetGalley for providing an early copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Vanessa.
462 reviews290 followers
April 29, 2018
Okayyy......This book is really strange, the setting is beautiful and transports you to another ethereal place however the story feels fragmented almost as if Sophie is living in a deamlike trance removed from reality, the most perplexing thing is the dialogue. The stilted conversations the unusual randomness of the questions, it's like everyone is infected by the same tap water or something which makes everyone act so strangely or perhaps the scorching Mediterranean sun is to blame. None of the situations felt real or believable but this book has an uncanny ability to draw you in and it's almost hypnotic you can't look away. I found Sophie the most strange she has this childlike quality despite her academic credentials. The codependent relationship between mother/daughter is the main theme, and the ties that bind Sophie with her mother who is quite a ball and chain dragging Sophie through the mud via her neurotic imagined illnesses. The imagery is quite savage despite the idyllic location and the whole book is dotted with symbolic references some easier to comprehend then others, it may take a few readings for me to grasp exactly what the writer is trying to convey here but it was strangely compelling and I was intrigued throughout. Can't decide between a 3 or a 4 rating so I give it 3.5
Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,024 reviews4,072 followers
May 15, 2016
Debbie has passed from the cool and profitless corners of the unknown (where the finest books are published), to the Booker-nominated realm of mainstream presses who insist on insipid covers with bikini-clad women to flog their books to “markets” not readers. Despite this brutal shift, Debbie has not altered her lean poetic prose style, her steely Ballardian tone, and her panache for poking into the painful nooks of her damaged personnel. This short novel features a daughter chained to her hypochondriac mother, and a series of events that occur at a dubious Spanish medical resort where the mother seeks a salve for her ailing foot. Blackly humorous, compelling and sweltering with sorrowfulness, on a par with the brilliant Billy & Girl and Swallowing Geography. Drink from Debbie’s teat tomorrow.
Profile Image for Katie.
268 reviews335 followers
August 5, 2019
This is a very self-consciously literary novel. At times almost overloadedly literary as motifs, symbols, allusions to current global events, poetical dialogue are heaped in the narrative shopping trolley. I often felt like the author was trying to cover too much ground and as a result the focus could be a bit blurry. Also, I couldn't quite get a handle on the narrator who seemed to me like two different women. I was never quite sure if what she was telling us was really taking place - in particular, her erotic adventures and her meeting with her long lost father. Perhaps the idea was she was living an alternative fantasy life which was narrated as if it was real. But in that case the resolutions between her and mother didn't make sense. To be honest I was left a bit baffled. It's a novel that purports to be realistic but is often surreal. I enjoyed reading it but I can't say I ever loved it. However, I've got a feeling it might be a better novel than I was able to appreciate.
Profile Image for Bianca.
1,047 reviews902 followers
August 9, 2018
I am actually sorry I finished listening to this terrific novel. I found it hypnotic, dream-like and compelling. I should probably wait a little longer and ponder before I write my review, but that's not really my style.

This is a relatively complex novel, deceptive in its simplicity. It's filled with symbolism and it's wonderfully rich in characterizations and vivid descriptions.

Twenty-five year old Sofia is the carer of her sixty-four-year-old, hypochondriac mother, Rose, who's lost the ability to walk. She rules over Sofia and pushes her around. Sofia is an intelligent young woman, who's abandoned her anthropology PhD, devoting herself to looking after her mother. She works in a cafe and sleeps in a room above the shop for five nights and lives with her mother the rest of the time. She's got nothing to her name. She's clueless, extremely passive and trapped.

The trip to the South of Spain to a very expensive private clinic run by Dr Gomez is the last resort for Sofia's mum. While there, Sofia has opportunities to explore her sexuality and discover things about herself. She also pays a visit to her Greek father and his new family. They haven't had any contact in over eleven years.

Sofia is fascinated with memory. She's an observer with an anthropologist's observational skills. She's not particularly skilled at applying those skills to herself, which is not unusual, most of us tend to look outwards more than inwards.

The time in Spain, the people and relationships that develop there bring on revelations and prompt Sofia to seek escape and change. Will she manage to pull herself out of this emotional entrapment?

I really liked this novel. Levy did a terrific job describing the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship and other types of connections. This is not for everyone, but it sure worked on/for me.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews28 followers
April 15, 2016
Questions I thought about....
Why is this story set in Southern Spain? And what's the connection of the location
to the title of the book?

When I think of Southern Spain, I think of gorgeous beaches, bright blue skies, fluffy flamingo dresses, sangrias, and many vibrant cheerful healthy people.

When I think of "Hot Milk"... I think of a young child. I think about a warm white soothing drink before bedtime.....and sleeping and dreaming.

Our main characters are not vibrant, cheerful, or healthy ( of sound mind and or body).
Turmoil cloud the skies -the beaches- and their thoughts.
There is an undercurrent theme of paralysis in this kaleidoscopic story.

Many alluring descriptions...dreamlike and symbolic trappings. I was able to link the connection between the location of Spain and the title -"Hot Milk"...but I had to keep thinking outside the box ...as this entire tale is a little offbeat with mystifying characters.

"I continue to unknot the old knots in my mothers laces and make new knots".

"Later, we swam naked in the warm night and he kissed every medusa sting on my body, the welts, the blisters, until I was disappointed there were not more of them. I had been stung into desire".

Sophia, anthropologist/barista ...has lost all focus on her own life...and is tied to her mother, Rose. Sophia can't image her mother ever walking along the beach. She identifies with her mother stuck in a wheel chair, unable to ever use her legs again to walk.
Her mother can't imagine her 25 year old daughter driving....( she has failed her drivers test 4 times). They are both so broken...lighting more fire to each other's already burning scars.

This is a powerful - well written novel....quick to read...but not so quick to immediately
comprehend without some serious thinking.

Thank You Bloomsbury, Netgalley, and Deborah Levy

Profile Image for Britta Böhler.
Author 9 books1,867 followers
January 12, 2019
I really loved the first 100 pages or so, but the meandering story didn't keep me interested and I felt too detached from the characters (practically all of them neurotic in one way or the other) to care about them. Plus: The writing was skillfully done but too heavy on the symbolism for my taste.

Re-read in January 2019:
I definitely liked it better this time, probably also because I knew that I shouldn't expect a lot of plot. The beauty of the book is in the writing and the imagery (the symbolism didnt strike me as quite as heavy either the second time). I think it's a good book but in the end, just not quite for me.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,608 reviews2,581 followers
September 13, 2016
“My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep.” This is a most unusual mother–daughter story, set on the southern coast of Spain. Twenty-five-year-old Sofia Papastergiadis has put off her anthropology PhD to accompany her mother, Rose, on a sort of pilgrimage from their home in England to Dr. Gómez’s clinic to assess what’s wrong with Rose’s legs. What I loved about this novel is the uncertainty about who each character really is. Is Rose an invalid or a first-class hypochondriac? Is Dr. Gómez a miracle worker or a quack who’s fleeced them out of 25,000 euros?

As a narrator, Sofia pretends to objective anthropological observation but is just as confused by her actions as we are: she seems to deliberately court jellyfish stings, is simultaneously jealous and contemptuous of her Greek father’s young second wife, and sleeps with both Juan and Ingrid. “Am I self-destructive, or pathetically passive, or reckless, or just experimental, or am I a rigorous cultural anthropologist, or am I in love?” she wonders.

Levy imbues the novel’s relationships with psychological and mythological significance, especially the Medusa story. I don’t think the ending quite fits the tone, but overall this is a quick read. At the same time, it’s such an odd story that it will keep you thinking about the characters. A great entry from the Booker shortlist.

A few more stand-out lines:

“I want to get away from the kinship structures that are supposed to hold me together. To mess up the story I have been told about myself. To hold the story upside down by its tail.”

Ingrid to Sofia: “Everyone is a field study to you. It makes me feel weird. Like you are watching me all the time.”

Gómez to Sofia: “You are using your mother like a shield to protect yourself from making a life.”

“I did not need to go to Samoa or Tahiti like Margaret Mead to research human sexuality. The only person I have known from infancy to adulthood is myself, but my own sexuality is an enigma to me.”
Profile Image for Laura .
363 reviews134 followers
November 2, 2021
This is a sad book - with a message embedded in the tale - which I don't generally like. I prefer my novels without - lessons! Despite that I like it. The first half has a stop-start feel to it - I suppose the author is setting up the scene and characters as best she can - and then there is real momentum and power in the episode when Sofia follows up on her need to re-acquaint herself with the father who left when she was 14.

The backstory, is mostly about Rose, Sophia's mother, and the hardships of her life earning and providing. Sophia suffers - the child in this situation. She also becomes her mother's main carer as Rose manifests various illnesses - brought on, we are invited to conclude by her struggles with poverty.

Rose re-mortgages the house in a last bid attempt to diagnose her illness - the money is to be used for treatment at a private clinic in Spain, with an unconventional doctor - Gomez. This is the main story - with the setting of Almería. We follow Gomez as he investigates; his primary interest is in the mother/daughter relationship; and the reader understands that he is more a psychoanalyst than a doctor of medicine.

Levy's style is intriguing - there are beautiful constructions of scenery and people - done very quickly and lightly, sometimes there is a jolting between one section and the next - as if something has not quite been explained, but this seems to add rather than detract. She also plays the symbolic hand quite heavily with Medusas in the sea - attacking Sofia and snakes in the bedroom - and the need for Sofia to embrace more of the dark-side of her femaleness - I don't want to use the word femininity.

Again - this is an intellectual writer - she is aiming for layers of meaning - there are ecological statements, comments on architecture and references to the ancient. I like the Greek references - mainly I suppose because I can actually read Greek - she didn't need to include the alphabet for me.

The only thing I really don't like is that underlying story - the mother's resentment and bitterness at being left - and with the sole responsibility for a young child. This is the reason for the whole of the rest of her life - wasted in illnesses. I think this backstory undermines the constructive work that the book is trying to do - to encourage women to broaden their horizons - to help them redefine who they are in this modern world. Sofia is set free, but Rose - Rose gets what she has wished for - and this is a terrible contradiction.

Still - I've given it a 5 - for the beautiful location and descriptions - and the originality of her brush-stroke style images.
Profile Image for Helene Jeppesen.
685 reviews3,642 followers
April 25, 2017
4.5/5 stars.
This book takes place in Spain and for that alone I loved it. I felt like drying in the sun, swimming in the blue water and hearing the seagulls cry while reading and it was bliss.
As soon as I dived into the story - which is about a hypocondriac mother and her daughter who have gone to Spain to find a cure - I realized that this was going to be a quirky story, written beautifully. Deborah Levy makes sure that every dot is connected without making it too obvious, and therefore it is up to the reader to be alert and observant - I like those kinds of books.
Sofia, the protagonist, was amazing. Even though she finds herself in a kind of void in her life, I wish I had been more like her when I was her age. I also loved how both of them are from England so that there is a natural contrast between the blue skies of Spain and the rainy days of England.
Bravo! This was just the quirky and deep kind of story I needed and I'm a fan! Also, I need to visit Spain someday; as long as I don't encounter a medusa fish :D
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,777 reviews1,262 followers
December 20, 2022
Sofia and her mother Rose are staying in Southern Spain – where they have come (having taken a mortgage on Rose’s house) to a famous clinic owner Dr Gomez who Rose believes offers the only hope to her mysterious illness (a part physical, part psychological inability to walk due to paralysis of feeling in her feet). Rose is from Yorkshire originally, but married a Greek who later divorced her and cut off all contact with Rose and Sofia, marrying a girl 40 years his junior (and only 4 years older than Sofia) shortly before inheriting a shipping business and having another daughter. Sofia ia an anthropologist by training but works in (and lives above) a coffee shop as a barista, her life seemingly on hold and in thrall to the hypochondria of her needy and manipulative mother.

The other characters in the book include: a student lifeguard, whose main role is treating tourists for jellyfish stings; Ingrid - a muscular German girl who runs an embroidery business (both of these become Sofia’s lovers, but with Ingrid their seems a mutual fascination bordering on obsession); Ingrid’s English boyfriend Matthew who coaches executives for shareholder presentations and is convinced that Gomez is a quack but also seems to want to pressure him to recommend pills developed by one of his US pharma clients; Gomez’s daughter who acts as her assistant but also paints, and who seems a potential alcoholic – Matthew becomes obsessed with her; Sofia’s ageing and increasingly religious father, his wife struggling with breastfeeding.

The writing is as languorous as the balmy Mediterranean heat and the narrative serves more as a device to set up a series of tableaux filled with striking imagery: Ingrid using an axe to strike the head off an snake that attacks her; Gomez’s white marble domed clinic which at the end Sofia sees as a spectral breast; a top embroidered for Sofia by Ingrid which she thinks says beloved but then find means beheaded and she later believes refers to Ingrid’s desire to behead her obsession with Sofia; Rose’s mother happily walking along the beach, or clearly aware of sensation in her feet when she is not aware she is observed; Sofia abandoning Rose on her wheelchair in a road with a lorry approaching; the jellyfish stings which become a form of purgatory for Sofia – and almost like slave whippings; Sofia’s father’s wife nipples cracked by the feeding of the baby, and Sofia’s lips cracked by the sun and sea; a chained dog which Sofia releases but she then thinks has died; Sofia’s inability to drive – but when she does learn the only gear that she cannot master being neutral.

The images pile up but are internally consistent and coherent building a picture of female identity and motherhood which makes this an excellent and memorable read.

Towards the end of the book Sofia muses on her various characters

“Am I self-destructive, or pathetically passive, or reckless, or just experimental, or am I a rigorous cultural anthropologist, or am I in love”.

A clear theme in the book is medusas: in Spain jellyfish are called Medusas. The last two paragraphs of the book draw heavily on this imagery and almost sum up the entire book.

Her mother says

“You have such a blatant stare … but I have watched you as closely as you have watched me. It’s what mothers do. We watch our children. We know our gaze is powerful so we pretend not to look” – drawing on the idea of a Medusa as Greek God (linked of course to Sofia’s paternal descent) turning people to stone by their stare as Sofia and her mother Rose have held each other petrified by their strange relationship.

The ending of the book says

“The tide was coming in with all the medusas floating in its turbulence. The tendrils of the jellyfish in limbo, like something cut loose, a placenta, a parachute, a refugee severed from its place of origin”

Which summarises many of the themes interwoven through Sofia’s account.
Profile Image for Lisa.
977 reviews3,327 followers
November 29, 2021
Is Sofia bold enough at the end?

That is the question Deborah Levy wrote into this copy of Hot Milk after a lecture, during a book signing session. Needless to say, the question haunted me as a reader, especially since I was about halfway through the novel when she placed it there. So the first half of the book, I read on my own, puzzling over the strange characters and settings. The second half, I read with a guiding star - a grapple question, as my professional self would put it.

Is she bold enough?

In Deborah Levy's world, each word has an emphasis, a poetical meaning beyond the mere statement. So I start by wondering how to put the question right.

IS she bold enough?

Is SHE bold enough?

Is she BOLD enough?

Is she bold ENOUGH?

Considering the amount of abandonment that Sofia experienced by both her parents in the past, I would answer that any path towards freedom is BOLD PER SE, and not measurable in the terms of "enough" or "not enough".

But I am still lingering on the power of the question, written as a dedication on the first page. How did it change me as a reader? Did it make me bolder or less so in my approach to the novel? Did I see things that might have stayed hidden, did it take my reading heart and guide it towards the character's core? Or did it act as an oppressive parent, telling me what to imagine?

That is the question. And the novel is the non-answer to it. Because we are what our parents imagine us to be. But we are also our rejection of that imaginary self. And the accumulated experiences we collect outside our parents' imagination.

Sofia is bold the moment she lives!
Profile Image for Vanessa.
868 reviews1,096 followers
November 11, 2016
2.5 stars.

I have very mixed feelings about this. About halfway through, I had an incredibly strong urge to DNF the book altogether. It was only a little over 200 pages though, so I forced myself to continue and finish it. Still, it took me almost a week to read a book much shorter than a lot of books I read, which is never a good sign.

Hot Milk I think has more of a central idea than a central plot. We follow the narrator Sofia, who moves to Almería in Spain with her mother Rose, to seek specialist medical attention for Rose. She maintains she can't feel her legs and feet, and all the doctors in the UK are baffled by this. The intriguing Dr Gómez is her last hope.

That's all I can really say about what I was told by the blurb on the book. What the book is really about? Not much, at least in my opinion. Sure, we can say it's about the relationship between mother and daughter, it's about a girl in her early twenties coming to terms with who she really is and what she wants in life... but all those things sound incredibly clichéd. So what made this worthy of the Man Booker shortlist?

I'd probably say the writing. Levy truly has a way with words - her prose is dreamlike, reminding me of the way the air looks wavy when the sun is beating down on the earth. And that definitely makes sense, given the environment of the book - it's full of cracked lips, sunburnt skin, knotted sea-salted hair, and tangy sweat. I felt like I was in a bubble though at the same time - the location didn't seem real at all, despite being a legitimate real placce in Spain, and all I could picture in my mind was a desert land surrounded by pockets of beaches, run-down apartments, and that strange white clinic where Rose seeks help.

Another thing that I found hard to believe in were the characters - I didn't like any of them. And normally unlikeable characters aren't necessarily a bad thing for me, but there was the issue of the dialogue. I haven't read such unnatural, unbelievable dialogue in a long time. You know when YA characters speak like they're in some sort of Shakespeare play? It was kind of like that, all strange metaphors and odd little refrains that popped up throughout the text. I couldn't really understand Sofia's main motivations or feelings towards most of the characters throughout this book, and as such I didn't really feel much for her character. Her 'friend' Ingrid was more of a strange version of a manic pixie dream girl. The men in her life were shadows of people (refreshing though that it's the male characters who appear like that, not the female characters for once). And her mother Rose? She was the most detestable, horrible woman I've read about in a while. Zero sympathy for her.

Overall, I wouldn't really recommend this because I think it will only be for a very specific set of people with very specific tastes - and I don't know what those are. I love this kind of tale in movies, when it's a kind of quirky indie comedy/drama and you get to appreciate the aesthetics a lot more. But in book form? I just felt like it dragged and went nowehere. Points for the writing though, because it is A+++.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,416 followers
September 14, 2016
In light of Elaine's review, I rewrote my initial snarky take on this novel and posted to my blog. To get full enjoyment from this novel, I urge you to see what a reread will do for you.

Below is my original review.

This short novel feels too long. An anthropologist, Sofia, quits working on her PhD ostensibly to care for her mother, who is unable to walk. No explanation can be found for the mother’s malady so mother and daughter travel to Spain in hopes a specialist there may be able to elicit a cure.

Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, this novel comes after a long history of successful poetry, novels, and screenplays by Levy, so we are primed to find it praiseworthy. And it is, but she very nearly tips us into the deep, endlessly cycling the trauma of caring for someone apparently suffering a psychosomatic illness.

There is something we are meant to pay attention to: the notion that some people would never consider doing things that are not to their own advantage. The idea arises again and again in the course of the novel, first explicitly stated when the daughter visits her estranged and happily remarried father to ask for financial assistance or, at the very least, moral support for her efforts to care for his first wife. He refuses, and his new wife snorts with derision that he would consider doing any thing not to his advantage.

Women—wives, mothers, daughters, sisters--often do things not strictly in their best interests. They do it out of love, usually, or say they do. But when one is the head of one’s own household, one is responsible for oneself—to oneself—to manage, to persist, to succeed. [Truthfully, and this is completely unrelated to the book, I know a woman who takes care of herself before everyone else and she is one pain in the caborum.]

There is more in this novel: a kind of forbidden love with a luscious, unstable blond of German descent and a lustful affair with the tent supervisor for jelly-fish stings. There are fabulous white-white sheets (must get some of those), blue embroidery thread that spells out a misunderstood and potentially dangerous message, and a leather-booted horse trainer. There is a doctor of the psyche and his sexy Sunny daughter, to say nothing of a pregnant white cat and a chained dog who howls whether or not he is leashed. It all has the tone of a late-adolescent fling about it. Good for some…

There is nothing wrong with a little fun in the sun—I feel like I missed my beach getaway this year so may sound a little dour about the descriptions of daily swimming and tan lines. Maybe it all could have been said in a poem, or a screenplay that features a stage covered in dunes with a backdrop of bluest ocean and a sliver of sky. The claustrophobia of that setting would mirror how I felt revolving in the confusion of Sofia’s mind. When finally the doctor tells Sophia, “Your confusion is willful,” we echo his diagnosis and frustration.

There is a twist at the end which will thrill some readers. Being who I am, however, it didn’t surprise me. But that’s just my sour nature coming out. I have only read a couple Booker Long List nominees so far, but I guess this wouldn’t be at the top of my list.
Profile Image for Amanda.
1,087 reviews222 followers
August 8, 2016
This is the fourth selection I have read from the 2016 Man-Booker longlist and it is my favorite so far.

Written in a dreamy, lyrical style rich in symbolism it tells the story of Rose and her daughter Sofia who are on an extended holiday in Spain to visit a clinic to cure Rose's physical (mental?) problems with her feet.

There is a whole cast of dysfunctional characters in this and the relationship between Rose and Sofia is fascinating.
Profile Image for Emma.
976 reviews976 followers
February 16, 2016
This whole novel feels like a dreamscape. From the outset, the voice of Sofia is out of sync with the real world. Her thoughts tumble over each other, escaping in to connections that make sense only to her. Her interactions with other characters are stilted, rapid affairs in which each person seems to be having their own, separate conversations, with meaning only relevant to themselves. Being stung by a jellyfish only enhances and extends the feverish, fanciful narrative. It creates a bizarre, disjointed, and uncertain world that is intriguing and confusing and hypnotic. At times, it reminded me of The Beach, the reflection of a character lost in their own mind.

Levy has created an experience more than a novel, something to get lost in.

Many thanks to Deborah Levy, Penguin Books, and Netgalley for this copy in exchange for an honest review.

Profile Image for Dianne.
559 reviews909 followers
October 14, 2018
Dreamy, surreal and loaded with maternal and sexual symbolism, this mother/daughter tale is not your run of the mill story. I felt like I had entered a twisted dreamscape - is this really happening or is it the imagination of an anguished mind?

Sofia is the long suffering daughter of a manipulative, hypochondriac mother. The mother claims she cannot walk or feel her feet, but she seems able to walk just fine when Sophie is not around. They take a trip to Spain to see an esteemed consultant in a last ditch effort to diagnose the mother’s “illness.” Sofia’s encounters with the inhabitants of the town and the clinic are fanciful, strange and sensual. In a way, it’s Sofia’s coming of age story but the real sinew is in the relationship and interplay between mother and daughter.

This is a hard one to describe or review, but let me just say if Salvador Dali had written a book about the complexities of mother and daughter guilt and angst, this would be it.

This book was shortlisted for the Man Booker 2016 award. I liked it very much, but I feel like I grasped about half of what the author intended me to grasp.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,518 reviews2,464 followers
September 7, 2020
English: Hot Milk
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2016
Shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize 2016

This is a story about a daughter growing up as the caretaker of her mother, and her attempts to emancipate herself and build a life of her own: Sofia grew up in England with her mother Rose after her Greek father had left them when she was still a small child. Rose has been chronically ill ever since - but the doctors can't find a physiological cause, assuming psychological issues. Now Rose is 25, struggling to finish her dissertation in anthropogy (of all subjects!) and working as a barrista while still taking care of her mother - she feels stuck between roles, stuck in her own life. Rose and Sofia travel to a private clinic in Spain, a last attempt to find out what's wrong with Rose...

We hear the whole story from Sofia's perspective, we follow her when she meets and begins an affair with the German seamstress Ingrid and finally travels to Greece to meet her estranged father and his new family. Both in Spain and Greece, the economic crisis is rampant, and the theme of who is indebted to whom, and who is seeking profits is played out both in the familial and on the macro-economic level. Another recurring symbol is that of the jellyfish, in the German translation (and also in Spanish): medusa - not sure how Levy calls the animal in the English original, but the reference to Greek mythology is apparent: Medusa is today an important symbol of feminism and in the writings of Freud, she is linked to the fear of castration (Medusa's Head).

I enjoyed how Levy shows Sofia's double bind: She feels like she has to take care of her mother, and Rose does expect her daughter to devote herself to her, but at the same time, this role is an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for her own life. Sofia's dissertation (the one she struggles to finish) discusses the nature of memory, especially cultural memory, and the novel discusses how memory turns into narrative that influences individual people (like Rose) and whole nations. Sofia tries to change her narrative, and makes her own plot more daring, bolder.

A smart book, rendered in Levy's trademark atmospheric language. But The Man Who Saw Everything is even better.
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews638 followers
February 8, 2017
Re-read in 2017 and still one of my favourite reads of the last I don't know how long.


Alex Clark’s review in The Guardian ends like this: “Over the course of her novels, short stories, plays and essays – including 2013’s response to George Orwell’s “Why I Write”, which she entitled “Things I Don’t Want to Know” – Levy has prodded at the intersections between gender, identity, language and desire, constantly cocking her ear to hear stories of displacement, exile and return. Hot Milk, with its disrupted familial relationships, undercurrent of violence, sexual blind alleys and fizzing combination of the fantastical and the mundane, is exactly that sort of story – and then some.” You can read the whole review here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/201....

I really, really loved this book. I think it might go to the top of my list of best books read in 2016. The writing style makes it seem like a dream with bizarre jumps and imagery. But it is grounded in realism as it explores the mother-daughter relationship along with the Greek financial crisis and a few other things. I loved that it kept you off balance all the way through. I loved that it is a book that refuses classification. I loved the symbolism and the repetitions of ideas but in a slightly different context. I loved the bits about David Bowie. I could go on.

There’s another interesting review here: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-ent...

A quote that made me think is: “What is a myth?’ That is a big question. It would be true to say that I was probably obsessed with it.”

A quote that made me laugh is: “It was like being in the same room with Janis Joplin, but without the talent.”

I’ve read Swimming Home. I need to add other Levy books to my TBR list.
Profile Image for Lynne King.
490 reviews658 followers
August 21, 2016
This book was written five years after "Swimming Home", a book by this author which I adore. But this book - I hate it. I don't know why but it does nothing for me.

I really cannot understand why this book had such a depressing effect on me. It is set in Spain and shows Sofia and her mother Rose arriving at a clinic to try and find a cure for the latter's inability to walk. Dr Gomez, the individual in the clinic who everyone believes will achieve this, is a vacuous individual and his daughter Julieta is even more irritating.

I found the prose pedestrian, in fact the book bored me no end. I then skim read looking for some magical utterance and became completely fed up with it all by the time I had arrived at the end.

Bizarre really but that's life. As the French love to say: c'est comme ça.

A great disappointment to say the least.
Profile Image for Elaine.
785 reviews363 followers
September 1, 2020

I enjoyed a lot of this book, the prose and the odd feeling of dread, and the fabulous job of recreating a not very nice Spanish tourist town.

And I actually liked that it is a book that gives you tons to chew over because you know that nothing is as it seems and all is about story telling. The book calls out continually to Greek myth, and the mother is a fabulist and the daughter is an "ethnographer", a modern interpreter (and maker) of myth. The healer seems focused on stories, not the body. The central figure of the Medusa (with the accompanying trope (so common in myth) of women's bodies as mutable, grotesque and monstrous), as well as the heroine's Greek heritage, remind us where Western story making began.

And also, that echoing line - "the dream is dead" -heard early and often in this book. Which dream? Our heroine's dream of a happy or redeemable childhood family, on the one hand, but also, the quintessentially English dream of an escape to a more temperate and fair Spain is dead as well, as so vividly realized in the nightmare landscape of the medusa-poisoned unswimmable sea beside a barren desert filled with slave-manned greenhouses, industrial plants and highways. Indeed, perhaps because I read it in the weeks after Brexit, the book seems to make a case that the dream of "Europe" is dead. Our heroine's absentee father, at one time a Greek immigrant to England, is back in Greece - all too literally not living up to his obligations/debts. Spain is paralyzed by unemployment, vividly embodied by the grad student beach attendant, and also by its own myth making (the doctor). The most vital character is a German woman, who strides around in boots conquering men and women of all nations and industriously producing goods for export (really). (And because everything in Levy is always a bit overdetermined, the productive, seductive, modern, vigorous and powerful German has a shameful violent past that she'd rather not discuss). And our heroine's light at the end of the tunnel is grad school in the United States. Anyway, there's always all this STUFF in a Levy novel and sometimes the stuff is too much to sort out or tie together.

And sometimes also, the stuff is too little. As much as I enjoyed the book at times (including the final "twist" (a spiked little dagger)), I also got a little frustrated by the in-your-head-ness of it all. I'm glad to see women on the Booker list, as authors and as protagonists, but I would much rather read about a woman with agency. A grown-up woman. Ah well, still a very interesting read.
Profile Image for Srividya Vijapure.
216 reviews302 followers
December 9, 2016
“Who am I?” she asked,
“What am I?” she pondered
Bound by the chains of responsibility,
Dragged down by the burden called life,
Meaning and purpose, lost forever,
Existing for another, with no choice
I ask myself, what am I?

Am I just a daughter?
Or merely a lowly employee?
What is my status?
What are my rights?
Where lies my purpose?
Where lies my meaning?
Do I even have a right?

An extension is all I am,
An extension to the limbs of another
Born into this life I was
Borne with love, I thought
Mysteries surround me,
Surreal and unpronounceable ones, I feel,
Just like my last name,
The only thing that marks my fame,
Unpronounceable as it is,
It’s also something I inherited,
Am I the person I think I am
Or am I the person the world believes me to be?
Who am I, asked Sophie, with an unpronounceable last name,
Just tell me, who I am!

I came into this world through love,
I came into this world to be loved,
How then did I lose what was mine?
How then did life change the way it did?
Star crossed lovers, I can understand;
But star crossed family? o please explain,
Why did this love change?
Where did this love disappear?

Why is there nothingness around?
Where did it all go wrong?
When did it all go wrong?
Why did it all go wrong?
Questions and questions are all I have,
As answers, they only stay hidden,
Some answers beget more questions,
While some are best confusing.
Who am I, o please tell me,
What am I, o please let me know.

And so, begins Deborah Levy’s book, Hot Milk. A book that is not so much a story as much as it is a journey. A journey seeking a better understanding of the purpose and reason for existence. A journey that is full of bittersweet memories, angst and complete disillusionment that comes only through rejection. Who am I, is perhaps the most important question that Sophie asks throughout this book. This ‘I’ constitutes her raison d’etre for living, her own sexuality, her needs and wants, which are often not met but most importantly, this ‘I’ is a need to find her place in her family. What role does she play in the lives of her parents, is perhaps the most important question she has.

Abandoned by a father at a tender age, Sophie loses meaning of the word family quite early in her life. Living with a hypochondriac mother increases her angst and pain as she often feels like she is an extension of her mother’s limbs. Levy’s hypnotic writing takes us deep into Sophie’s psyche, where she is often looking at others for either approval or leadership. Just as our limbs don’t move without a direct command from the brain, so also does Sophie not act, unless someone has asked her to specifically do something.

Often one feels that Sophie isn’t ready to come out of that cocoon in which she has been smothered and chained by her mother’s hypochondriasis. Rather than emerge like a butterfly, she seems content in that caterpillar stage, which is more comforting and more importantly it is the known. Setting out to find a cure for her mother’s mysterious illness brings Sophie to a stage where she must come out of that cocoon.

The dilemma that Sophie faces, when asked by the doctor treating her mother to leave her mother alone for the days she spends in the hospital, is truly heartrending. As someone who has always been independent in thought as well as action, it was difficult for me to comprehend or even empathise with a person like Sophie. However, when she was at this crossroad, my heart truly went out to her, for here was a person who has never ever had candy and was given entry into a candy store. Where would she go? What would she do? How would she live? All those questions came into my mind and Sophie’s. Ms. Levy set an impeccable stage for Sophie to look beyond being an entity or an extension and seek the knowledge and courage that will make her independent. Whether Sophie succeeds in getting what she wants is not as important as the road that she travels when searching for what she wants.

How often in life do we come to a crossroad where we feel as lost as Sophie? Or to make it more comfortable to all those who don’t like to introspect, how often do we come to a stage where we are quite confused? Various triggers can enable this confusion, including, job, studies, relationships, just about anything. Now imagine a person having this confusion in all spheres at the same time? We would call him or her a poor soul and leave it at that, but that poor soul is what Sophie depicts. Understanding a person’s psyche goes beyond the surface into the deep dark corners of our own self and I must say that Ms. Levy has done a great job of portraying that confusion, that dilemma, that feeling of being lost, so beautifully that you often have tears in your eyes. Even when the rambling is weird, she manages to bring out the dichotomy that Sophie faces, whether it is her own sexuality or her own place in the family or her place in the world at large. Each step she takes brings her towards understanding herself better and towards gaining the confidence to emerge out of that cocoon and fly like a butterfly.

Ms. Levy’s book is not for those who are looking to read a happy or even a sad story with a proper beginning, middle and end. When I say this, I do not mean that this book doesn’t have all that. It has all that but its true beauty lies in the deeper meaning that can only be sought by ignoring the surface and plunging deep. Allowing yourself to be transported into Sophie’s world, her brain, her heart, her mind, is perhaps the best way to truly understand and love this book. I must say that Ms. Levy’s prose truly did that for me. She held me under a spell for the entire time and even today, days after finishing the book, I am still under that spell.
Let me leave you with a small quote by Betty Freidan that perhaps best describes and is the answer to the millions of Sophies that exist today;

” It is easier to live through someone else than to complete yourself. The freedom to lead and plan your own life is frightening if you have never faced it before. It is frightening when a woman finally realizes that there is no answer to the question 'who am I' except the voice inside herself.”

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