Is there any research on how books affect mood? Any reader can attest to the fact that books can make you roll on the floor laughing, ugly cry through the night, horrify you as you cower under the sheets. Sometimes however, the emotions do not shine through, because the book has the effort of muting them; forcing you to parse through the subtleties of what you are experiencing; leaving behind a residue of unnamed discomfort. Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk had exactly that effect on me.
Sofia Papastergiadis, is at her wit’s end when it comes to her (possibly hypochondriac) mother Rose whose strange paralysis has left her wheelchair bound. She has given up her anthropology thesis, on the topic of memory, to take care of her mother. As a last-ditch effort, Sofia takes Rose to southern Spain to consult with Dr Gómez. Whilst in Spain she goes swimming in a sea filled with venomous jelly-fish called medusas, and is tended to by Juan, who she takes for a lover. She also meets and starts an intimate relationship with a woman, Ingrid. And as her struggle with her mother (who is English) and Dr Gómez, intensifies, she visits her Greek father in an attempt to reconnect. All these experiences make up the fabric of this bizarre, uncomfortable book.
The book is certainly not as relaxed as the cover suggests. It feels more like sleeping on a lumpy mattress, where the cause of the lump is unidentifiable. The questions of identity and sexuality never have any easy answers. Sofia’s search for her identity is almost painful, as she tries to rediscover her “Greekness”, her purpose in life and her identity as caretaker of her mother. Her love life is just as conflicted, with her describing Juan as “maternal” at one point, and mistaking Ingrid for a man based on her shoes. Her bisexual identity is another negotiation in progress through the book. There is also the question of familial ties and duty –is Sofia a good daughter for having abandoned her dreams and ambitions to take care of Rose, or is it an unhealthy co-dependence that they share? Is Christos (Sofia’s father) bad for having abandoned his first wife and daughter, or was getting out of an obviously soured relationship an act of mercy?
To explore these themes there is a heavy reliance on symbolism. The Medusa symbol is an obvious one; there is a dog that won’t stop barking; and a scarf that Ingrid embroiders for Sofia–is the embroidered word Beloved or Beheaded? These and other symbols stand in for a lot of unsaid things.
The best part of the novel for me, is the writing which is beautiful, and as stunning as the landscape of an untouched beach.
The negative for me is that reading the book feels like trying to see through blurred glasses. Other critics have described this book as being dreamlike and surreal. However, it is this very quality that turns me off. It feels, to me personally, a bit forced. While partly an outcome of the symbolism, it is also distracting and unnecessary in other parts. Another bit of confusion was brought on by the fact that the copy of the ARC I was provided with was missing the letter ‘f’ and its variations ‘fl’, ‘fi’, ‘ff’, etc, throughout the book. I am not sure if this is intentional or if it is symbolism of another sort, but it made reading a very difficult experience. Very soon into the book I was inserting the ‘f’ in places it need not be–much like Rose seeing diseases where there are none?
In the end I am ambivalent about this book. It certainly was not something I could relate to; nor was it something that I enjoyed reading. I will however recommend the book for serious readers who don’t mind a side of discomfort with their main of beautiful writing .
Hot Milk, published by Bloomsbury USA, is forthcoming on July 12th 2016.
FTC disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.
Author Bio: http://www.bloomsbury.com/author/deborah-levy/