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Book review: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

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By Jamie Stewart

Sofia is being watched. By whom is unclear. Juan is fascinated with her after he sees to her medusa stings; her father Christos hasn’t seen her since she was fourteen; Dr Gomez wants her to be bolder; Ingrid thinks she’s a monster. Sofia’s story is set against a cast of highly unusual characters. Any and all of them have the potential to be her observer.

Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016, follows Sofia Papastergiadis as she comes to a crossroads in her life. She has left university with a first class degree and a master’s in Anthropology. She has abandoned her PhD and has moved to southern Spain to care for her mother, Rose. She is discovering herself for the first time in her life.

Rose is sick. It is unclear at first whether her illness is one of the mind or body. Rose believes there to be a biological coup against her. Her legs don’t work and the doctors in England have no answers. Sofia fulfills her duty as Rose’s daughter and cares for her, explaining, “[S]he is my mother. Her legs are my legs. Her pains are my pains. I am her only and she is my only.” But Sofia’s duty only goes so far; she can never seem to serve her mother the right kind of water.

Sofia and Rose are caught in a dysfunctional co-dependant relationship. She writes, “My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep. […] My love for my mother is like an axe. She has grabbed it from me and is threatening to cut off her feet.” Both women believe Almeria to hold the truth, but among the incessant barking from the Alsatian next door and the poisonous jellyfish in the ocean, there seems to be more questions than answers.

Hot Milk is a forceful novel about identity and duty and Deborah Levy’s lyrical prose and sharp dialogue leaves you scratching your head while you turn the page.

About the author / 

Jamie Stewart

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