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Booker Prize for Fiction > 2016 Shortlist: Hot Milk

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message 1: by Trevor (last edited Jul 27, 2016 04:53AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Trevor (mookse) | 1859 comments Mod
Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy

Hot Milk

UK Publication Date: March 24, 2016
US Publication Date: July 12, 2016
224 pp

Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath, landing screen-side down. The digital page shattered. Apparently there's a man in the next flyblown town who mends computers. He could send off for a new screen, which would take a month to arrive. Will I still be here in a month?

My mother is sleeping under a mosquito net in the next room. Soon she will wake up and shout, 'Sofia, get me a glass of water', and I will get her water and it will be the wrong sort of water. And then after a while I will leave her and return to gaze at the shattered starfield of my screen.


Two women arrive in a Spanish village - a dreamlike place caught between the desert and the ocean - seeking medical advice and salvation. One of the strangers suffers from a mysterious illness: spontaneous paralysis confines her to a wheelchair, her legs unusable. The other, her daughter Sofia, has spent years playing the reluctant detective in this mystery, struggling to understand her mother's illness.

Surrounded by the oppressive desert heat and the mesmerising figures who move through it, Sofia waits while her mother undergoes the strange programme of treatments invented by Dr Gomez. Searching for a cure to a defiant and quite possibly imagined disease, ever more entangled in the seductive, mercurial games of those around her, Sofia finally comes to confront and reconcile the disparate fragments of her identity.

Hot Milk is a labyrinth of violent desires, primal impulses, and surreally persuasive internal logic. Examining female rage and sexuality, Deborah Levy's dazzling new novel explores the strange and monstrous nature of motherhood, testing the bonds of parent and child to breaking point.


message 2: by Lee (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lee I enjoyed this (not as much as Swimming Home) and it's good to see Levy in there. Can't see it winning.


message 3: by Ang (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ang | 1685 comments It's quite different from Swimming Home, which I loved. I think this one is just as good, and I hope it gets shortlisted.


message 4: by Viv (new) - rated it 5 stars

Viv JM | 37 comments I have just finished this and I really loved it. The writing style is very dreamy and rich with symbolism and imagery which probably isn't to everyone's taste but I enjoyed it immensely. I've never read any previous Levy books, but I definitely would like to read more.


message 5: by Lee (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lee I'd read anything of Levy's. In re-reading this I've grown to appreciate it a little more. Could be a dark horse...


message 6: by Lascosas (new)

Lascosas | 456 comments Not as powerful a her other Booker longlist (and shortlist) Swimming Home, the two books share the sense of dislocation and weightlessness that foreign travel can bring. Sofia travels with her mother Rose from England to Spain in search of a solution to her mother's physical (mental?) inability to walk. The main problem I had with this book, unlike Swimming Home, was how long it took to really get going. The first half meanders. True, so does Sofia, but a lack of direction in a character need not be slavishly followed in the book.

Eventually Sofia adjusts to Spain and her surroundings, including several memorable characters, including her lovers and her mom's 'doctor'. An brilliant student and doctoral candidate in anthropology, well before the book begins she has come adrift, and that is what we see in the early part of the book. But when she hits bottom and bounces back events pick up, and so does the author's handling of the interactions between characters.

One of the strongest characteristics of both her Booker books is a fearless use of language in sentences that barely hang together, and in characters that are impossible to neatly characterize. Is the doctor a fraud, or misunderstood? Is his daughter an alcoholic who takes advantage of others, or a sensitive artist trying to navigate a difficult landscape. And Rose? She is a veritable Raucher test of characteristics and ticks that can be interpreted in virtually any manner. Personally, I'm not a Rose fan.

Here are a few examples of the book's language:
"Neither a god nor my father is the major plot in my own life. I am anti the major plots."
"If I were to pluck out my eyes, it would please my father, but memory is like a bar code. I am the human scanner."
"My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep." [used twice in the novel]
"It was there anyway, like a bruise before a fall."
"If I made a home, what would I buy from this stall of domestic goods? I would apparently have moths and mice to kill and rats and flies."
"His tone was vague. Vaguely mocking and vaguely amiable. Which meant it was a bit bent."


Amanda (tnbooklover) | 99 comments I finished this one this morning and I really liked the writing style. I agree it could be a dark horse. I haven't read Swimming Home but I have it so hope to at some point. I think this is one that would be even better on a second read.


message 8: by Ang (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ang | 1685 comments I think I slightly prefer Swimming Home. It was my favourite the year that it was shortlisted.


message 9: by Jibran (last edited Aug 14, 2016 01:29PM) (new)

Jibran (marbles5) | 289 comments I see generally positive reviews on here, so I beg your collective pardon because I'm sounding a dissenting note. Which might change if I decide to continue with it. I have put it away for the time being and may try it again if it's shortlisted.

A key to writing a decent novel is to write a compelling first chapter. This is where you set the tone. I couldn't have imagined a start that is more more off-putting. The writing is all over the place: wild interjections, rambling projections, strange humour, mythical-creature namedropping and whatnot...

Also, a funny narrator does not necessitate that all or most characters s/he meets during the course of the story must also be goofy half-wits acting against the faculty of reason right? If you can't create humour out of verisimilitude then what's the point...okay let's say it's not my kind of humour.

Please don't click if you don't want to influence your expectations of it if you haven't read it yet. Discretion advised.

(view spoiler)


message 10: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 10584 comments Very impressed with this - would love to see it win. The use of language raises it well above the others I have read so far.


message 11: by Doug (new) - rated it 5 stars

Doug Had not read any Levy before this, but am now a huge fan, and will definitely read Swimming Home and her plays as soon as I finish the Booker longlist. I like books that can't be pigeon-holed and this certainly fulfills that requirement. Full disclosure: however, my enthusiasm for this undoubtedly stems from having a family dynamic that very closely mirrors the one in the book (i.e., I am a person that struggled to finish a difficult Ph.D., am a long time caregiver for a sometimes impossible 94 year old mother, and have a father that deserted his first family and started a second one, whom I have not seen in 45 years). Need I say more?


message 12: by Trevor (last edited Aug 23, 2016 02:01PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Trevor (mookse) | 1859 comments Mod
Big fan of this one! I would be thrilled if it ended up winning. I liked it even more than Swimming Home, which was up at the top of my list the year it came out. I feel that here Levy has an even more creative use of language to dig at the agitated mind.

Jibran, I have to disagree that this novel has a poor first chapter. Your comment seems to assume that we who like Hot Milk like it in spite of an off-putting first chapter; I was confident I'd love the novel because of it. I just don't see any of the passages you quote as indicative of failings. Certainly not fluff.


Trevor (mookse) | 1859 comments Mod
Just realized I never linked to Lee's review here . . .

Here it is.

I really think you should all feel free to link to reviews. It's best to include something that shows us you're not just trying to attract hits but are interested in engaging, but I don't see that as a problem at all at this point.


message 14: by Jibran (new)

Jibran (marbles5) | 289 comments Trevor,
As luck would have it, I think a combination of a few paragraphs and the narrative's approach towards some characters made me realise early on that this book is not for me. My apologies if I'd made it sound something definitive and indisputable. That was definitely not the intention. This is just my opinion and being as such has no bearing on others enjoying and liking the same things I could not.

Clearly, I failed to see what the judges have seen to put it on the longlist. And since I'm in the minority, I'll attribute it to my own shortcomings as a reader.


message 15: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 10584 comments Jibran wrote: "since I'm in the minority, I'll attribute it to my own shortcomings as a reader. "

It's certainly not your shortcoming as a reader, it's horses for courses, different books suit different people.

I loved this one but there are certainly flaws with it - the characters don't behave realistically (I can understand those who find themselves screaming at Sofia to sort her life out) and the plot is largely organised around the motifs, e.g. the jellyfish/Medusas, rather than vice versa.

For me those aren't issues but I can see for others they would be.

There are other books on the longlist where I am equally baffled as to why they are there (e.g. The Sellout) but where others love them.

There was an academic paper published this month - http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cf... - that argued that book awards showed much less consensus, and much less correlation with audience/readers' views, than did movie awards. Interestingly it used Goodreads ratings to judge readers' views.


Susanne | 55 comments Jibran wrote: "I see generally positive reviews on here, so I beg your collective pardon because I'm sounding a dissenting note. Which might change if I decide to continue with it. I have put it away for the time..."
I am just relieved that I am not the only one who is hating this book. Everything you say is spot on. I will continue to read it (I am halfway through it) and will write my review if I can bother. Not my cup of tea at all.


message 17: by Susanne (last edited Sep 04, 2016 02:06AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Susanne | 55 comments Well, I have finished reading this now and lascosas is right; it does pick up (slightly) in the second half.

I cannot disagree with the other reviewers; it's just that the aspects they enjoyed, mainly the language and style, are the very things that grated on my nerves. When I was reading Lee's review, I skipped the bits he quoted from the book as I couldn't stand to go through that again. I felt that the prose took itself too seriously and was too pleased with itself, all short(ish) declarative sentences. And the short interludes between chapters told from the point of view of one of Sofia's lovers (at first we feel it is Juan and then it seems to be Ingrid) were completely eye-roll inducing in my opinion

I found very few moments that were intriguing, thought-provoking or enjoyable although there were more of them in the second half. For example, I felt that the dynamics between Sofia's father, his wife (whom I found quite interesting) and his daughter were quite well handled by the author.

Sofia is a bit too rudderless and scattered. I couldn't relate to her; I know it is not fashionable to insist on likeable characters nowadays, but if I am going to spend all this time inside her head, I want the stay to be a bit palatable at least. I will have to agree with lascosas once again that perhaps the author is too committed to showing Sofia's lack of direction to the point where I felt I wanted to scream stop (the latter is my own reaction not lascosas).
My favourite characters tended to be those that do no seem to be so enamoured with Sofia, and unlike lascosas, I found (the English) Rose to be a quite compelling character, my reacation perhaps an extension of her daughter's fascination with her?

The other characters, especially Ingrid/Diana, felt flat and too much like empty vessels that Sophia can project meaning upon. Perhaps, this is a reflection of the narrator's training as an anthropologist and her fascination with motifs and the stereotypes cultures need to make sense of the world (see, I have read anthropology too). So, I can understand that the author might have a good reason for most of the things she is doing, I just didn't appreciate it. At least, she was not too obtuse about the connections she was making but rather veered in the other direction, making them (a bit) too obvious- something Lee picked up on in his own review.
It gets two stars from me, nothing more.
Just two final observations:
1) Did you notice that the abuse Sofia's mother hurled at her was never presented in the dialogue? What do you guys make of that?
2) As someone from a hot(tish) country, I am starting to find tiresome the trope of the white/ English person going to a warm country and somehow unraveling in the heat or finding themselves in some way. But I guess, writers from the South, in their own time, focus a lot on the cold when writing about migration to the North.


MisterHobgoblin The thing with a character driven novel is that you have to care about the character. You don't have to like the main character, but you do have to care about them. If you don't care about them, then the novel just becomes an exercise in beating tedium at its own game.

Sadly, I did not care about Sofia Papastergiadis.

The first chapter was quite promising. Set in coastal Spain, there was plenty of sea and sun to brighten up the end of a long Melbourne winter. This felt like a light read, perhaps heading off in a farcical direction like Skios. Certainly, Sofia's narration seemed quite comical and having got herself stung up by medusa jellyfish and received treatment from the lifeguard whilst unknowingly flashing her breasts, there was justification in expecting comedy.

Instead, we find that Sofia is deadly serious, accompanying her hypochondriac English mother to some alternative medical clinic whilst reconciling herself to the fact that her Greek father ran away when she was four. The trouble was, this Sofia was not interesting and, in fact, was not really credible. There was no underpinning logic in any of her actions, or any of the actions of the pop-up characters she meets on turning every corner. Are we really expected to believe that this shy girl manages to get into close friendships with everyone she meets? Are we expected to believe that the charlatan doctor's daughter (who works for him as a nurse) befriends her? Are we expected to believe that despite being unable to leave her mother to live her own life, she jets off to Athens whilst leaving mother at the clinic? Are we expected to believe Sofia would repeatedly swim through medusa jellyfish when their stings are so painful? And, ultimately, can we really believe in her running along the beach and getting medical treatment whilst not noticing that her bikini top has come untied?

I think not.

And for a while, it all seems straightforward if somewhat implausible. But then Hot Milk decides to get trippy and philosophical with everyone loving everyone else and drawing heavy metaphors from thin air. It all gets hard to follow, not helped by the fact that we have given up caring about a character in whom we do not believe and not helped by the lack of consistent behaviour on everybody's part.

For all the failing in terms of character and plot, Deborah Levy does convey a great sense of place. Maybe she would be better off using this talent to write Lonely Planet guides.


message 19: by Paul (last edited Sep 04, 2016 02:38AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 10584 comments MisterHobgoblin wrote: "The thing with a character driven novel is that you have to care about the character. "

Does seem this years longlist is provoking some strongly adverse views!

Given we disagreed strongly on The Sellout and Do Not Say We Have Nothing, not surprisingly we do on this one as well, which is my winner so far. Caring forabout [corrected as below] a character is rarely a consideration for me in a novel, so we'd depart on your very first sentence, and in this one I didn't really ever think of Sofia as a real person, but found it none the worse for that.

I think though that these books that provoke adverse reactions are ultimately better that bland conformity - I'm enjoying the debate.


message 20: by Lee (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lee I have to agree with Paul on this - and I never understand this necessity to 'care for' a character put in those terms. I think, rather, that you merely have to find the character and the character's voice interesting and the situations in which the character finds themselves interesting. The book is often farcical, ridiculous, but for me the comedic/linguistic payoff was plenty. I liked spending time with these characters, in this setting. I don't feel there is any requirement to evince a deep, positive, caring emotional response, necessarily.


MisterHobgoblin Read my post more carefully: I say "care about", not "care for". In that context, Lee and I seem to be in perfect agreement.

Paul - this is not the first time you have misquoted to suit your argument. Can I suggest it's a habit worth breaking?


Trevor (mookse) | 1859 comments Mod
Don't get snippy.


message 23: by Rosario (new) - added it

Rosario | 3 comments MisterHobgoblin wrote: "The trouble was, this Sofia was not interesting and, in fact, was not really credible. There was no underpinning logic in any of her actions, or any of the actions of the pop-up characters she meets on turning every corner."

MisterHobgoblin: that's quite worrying to hear, because it's the exact reason why I struggled with Levy's Swimming Home. I kept asking myself the "Are we expected to believe that..." question you describe above, and I ended up giving up halfway through.


message 24: by Lee (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lee Mister HobGoblin: can I suggest your strident, pompous tone is a habit worth breaking? And I think I'd rather avoid reading your comments again, if that's quite alright. I got the gist first time around - and I still disagree, but thanks for deliberating on my behalf.

In the main, I find your comments engaging and interesting, Mister Hobgoblin - but in this case I neither care for, or about, your stentorian approach, which is unnecessary, if intriguing. Debate isn't the same thing as self-absorbed dismissal, the last time I checked.


message 25: by Ang (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ang | 1685 comments MisterHobgoblin, by saying "care about", you explained that you meant "interested in". Like Paul, that wasn't my impression from the opening of your review. It's not beyond the realm of imagination that "care about" and "care for" could be considered the same. Just explain what you meant next time if we misunderstand. There was no malintent on Paul's part, I'm sure.


message 26: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 10584 comments Apologies if I caused any offence - certainly not meaning to,

I respect and enjoy MisterHobgoblin's views even if we seem to have almost exactly opposite views on every book we've both read from this year's list.

I would also say that i don't care "about" Sofia as a character either, I don't think of her as anything other than a narrative device, but I still like this book a lot.

And I rather hoped the idea of this forum was to encourage robust debate - it's certainly what I enjoyed from the old M&G forum pre Goodreads (albeit I wasn't able to participate until the very end, as Tony's spam filter always blocked my attempts to register!)

(Incidentally any apology is certainly not extended to the other apparent case of misquoting and to the author of a certain book.)


message 27: by MisterHobgoblin (last edited Sep 04, 2016 04:18AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

MisterHobgoblin Ang wrote: "MisterHobgoblin, by saying "care about", you explained that you meant "interested in". Like Paul, that wasn't my impression from the opening of your review. ."

Actually, the opening of my review states quite clearly: "You don't have to like the main character, but you do have to care about them." I don't see ambiguity in that sentence, and I don't see how "care about" could be misconstrued as "care for".


message 28: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 2629 comments I wonder if this is one of these little differences that feels greater to some than others, because of something one has read or been taught. Personally, I've hardly ever seen the difference between "care about" and "care for" emphasised quite so strongly before (perhaps only once). I find the difference is somewhat fluid in many people's usage, and therefore perhaps it is something that may be overlooked if one is busy, even by the particular.

I am unlikely to make a typo in the word "separate" even if in a hurry, because of an old schoolteacher who would frequently enunciate "sep-AH-rate", which has imprinted the spelling strongly on me. For others who did not hear that repeatedly, "seperate" is a common typo even if they ultimately know the correct spelling.


message 29: by Lascosas (new)

Lascosas | 456 comments I'm with Trevor...let us all try hard not to get snippy. It just ruins the discussion, at least for me.


message 30: by Joe (new)

Joe (paddyjoe) | 76 comments As Nina Simone didn't sing
'My baby don't care about shows
My baby don't care about clothes
My baby just cares about me
My baby don't care about cars and races
My baby don't care about high-tone places'
; )


Yacka | 20 comments I finished the book this evening and enjoyed it a lot. There was something very dreamy about Swimming Home and I was pleased that this book has the same dreamy feel to it.

I found Sofia very interesting and believable. She is totally enmeshed with her mother, abandoned by her father and finds it difficult to tell her needs. There are hints about anxiety and a subtle reference to social-anxiety disorder towards the end. Swimming Home had depression and I did wonder if this might have anxiety before reading it. I found that I cared a lot about Sofia.


message 32: by Carl (new) - rated it 4 stars

Carl (catamite) | 141 comments This one has stayed with me. There is some incredible writing (although did anyone notice the tense changes near the beginning? Maybe they were intentional but they jarred for me).


message 33: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 10584 comments Carl wrote: "This one has stayed with me. There is some incredible writing (although did anyone notice the tense changes near the beginning? Maybe they were intentional but they jarred for me)."

Interesting point. The Independent's reviewer picked it up and attributed it to a deliberate attempt to unsettle: "The reader becomes as unsettled as Sofia through Levy's provocative, seemingly haphazard mixing up of tenses, occasional blurring of points of view."


message 34: by Carl (new) - rated it 4 stars

Carl (catamite) | 141 comments Thanks Paul. That's interesting. I'll check out that review - I'd like to think it's not sloppy editing.


message 35: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 10584 comments Carl wrote: "Thanks Paul. That's interesting. I'll check out that review - I'd like to think it's not sloppy editing."

TLS (http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/pub...) and NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/boo...) also picked up on the effect.

As indeed does Sofia herself:

"Time has shattered, it’s cracking like my lips. When I note down ideas for field studies, I don’t know if I’m writing in the past or present tense or both of them at the same time."


message 36: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 10584 comments Every year the Jury of the, much superior, Goldsmiths Prize ("fiction at its most novel") have picked one book in common with the Booker shortlist. And this year that book is, deservedly, Hot Milk.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6990 comments Should a book really be listed for two major literary prizes which draws its main artistic inspiration from the Andy and Lou characters on Little Britain?


message 38: by Paul (last edited Oct 05, 2016 09:33AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 10584 comments Gumble's Yard wrote: "Should a book really be listed for two major literary prizes which draws its main artistic inspiration from the Andy and Lou characters on Little Britain?"

It's up against a "novel" on the Booker which owes its eligibility to a Nursey from Blackadder interpretation. Two novels inspired by two of the finest British comedies of the last 30 years competing for Britain's finest literary award - seems fair to me.


message 39: by Eric (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric | 257 comments I wouldn't mind if the constant disparaging side comments about The Sellout were to end. I liked the book, but even if I hadn't, I still think the horse has been beaten well beyond death.


message 40: by Paul (last edited Oct 05, 2016 09:34AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 10584 comments Fair point - although my mind can't quite rest until it really has beaten the judges to their senses, but I'll keep my barbs to myself, and have edited my remarks.


message 41: by Eric (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric | 257 comments Thanks, Paul. No need to edit, but I do appreciate it. Obviously though, when called for, let loose your opinions.


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