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Dec 03

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Sofia is a twenty-something who works as a Barista in the UK and spends most of her free time looking after her ailing mother Rose. They’ve headed to Spain, the setting for 90% of the novel, so Rose can visit the clinic of Doctor Gomez a man who she believes will discover why her legs are always numb.

Hot Milk is short but the prose is dense and layered and crammed with symbolism – much of which went over my head. This is because Sofia studied – though failed to finish – anthropology at University and so she views her mother and the people she meets in Spain as part of a larger ethnographic study. But really Sofia is aimless and without purpose. Shackled to her mother and her illness (is it hypochondria or is there something physically wrong with Rose?) Sofia struggles to make sense of who she is. Levy’s character work is fantastic, Sofia is a fully developed, but spending time with her – especially when she’s in the vicinity of her mother – makes for a painful reading experience.

Unlike a number of reviewers who were hypnotised and beguiled by Levy’s prose – and it is fantastic – the bare skeleton of a story meant that there was nothing beyond Sofia’s doubt to hang onto. Yes, she gets into a sort of love triangle, though it never really goes anywhere and her trip to Greece halfway through the novel to meet her Dad (she hasn’t seen him in 11 years) and his twenty something wife and baby sister only reinforces that Sofia comes from a broken place – a sick mother and father who no longer cares about his daughter. It’s sad and terrible and while I wasn’t expecting a happy ending, the lack of plot means that the book essentially stops without the feeling that there’s been any sense of progression.  Yes, we find out what’s ailing Rose, but Sofia continues to stare the status quo straight in the face.  She’s no closer to coming to terms with who she is or what her future holds.

This lack of forward momentum is undoubtedly deliberate.  And there is something a bit exciting about a book that is this formless, especially when the prose is so good.  But while the book is short, I couldn’t help but find my attention wandering.  There are times when the prose, as gorgeous as it might be, can’t elevate what seems like a study in navel gazing.

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