Hot Milk, (Deborah Levy, Hamish Hamilton, 2016) represents another among quite a few recent departures from my usual fare of genre-fiction, a foray into the literary. The prose was rather jarring at first but I grew to like it as the story went on, especially as the main character changed and developed.
A classic Booker-shortlist novel, Hot Milk is chock-full of symbolism so overt as to seem self-aware, and sports a plot consisting almost entirely of events internal to the main character; love affairs, indecision, apprehension and the eventual sloughing-off of anxiety. The characters speak in riddles and prophecies and the prose, constructed of short, often incongruous statements engineered, it seems, to avoid obfuscation (though it flouts Gricean maxims with reckless abandon), reads like the telling of an ancient myth.
The prose is also written in a technically peculiar way, with tense shifts occurring nearly every paragraph. This jarred me at first, as an editor the tense shift is one of my greatest pet peeves, but after a little while I honestly stopped noticing them. This, I think, was Levy’s aim: the refusal to stick to one tense, to place the narrative, as it were, in the present or the past reinforces the timeless, mythic proportions of the story and conveys only the plot events and the emotions and impressions of the protagonist. It’s story distilled into its purest form.
Hot Milk chronicles the interior epic of the aptly-named Sophia, a character who over the course of the book, burnishing in the Mediterranean sun, transforms from an aimless wanderer-a waitress, claims her mother in a clever piece of double entendre-into a hero, a woman who not only frees mistreated dogs and fetches water for her mother, but also does things that are (to quote the book further) to her advantage.
Sophia describes the events and characters in the book in anthropological terms, referring explicitly to human attributes that are often implicit: kin structures, religious and secular rituals, ingroup/outgroup tension. This achieves an unnerving effect, I often felt as I was reading that the narrator was oversharing, giving surplus information or overexplaining (in other words, breaking various Gricean Maxims), and the fact that this kind of description tapered off towards the end of the story (at least I think it did) seems in keeping with Sophia’s character trajectory, a letting-go of anxieties (clustered like medusa jellyfish) that goes hand in hand with a letting-go of her obsessive, almost unwilling, concern for her mother’s welfare. Though she thinks of herself as an observer (at least at the beginning), Sophia “goes native” with remarkable ease, swimming in the sea, eating local foods and lying in the sun while her mother, who despite going through her own series of developments remains largely static, insisting on clinging to her Englishness (and her nameless illness) until the last quarter of the book.
It’s difficult to say what Sophia’s transformation under that Mediterranean sun (a constant motif throughout the book) represents: beneath its gaze she comes to terms with and discards the remnants of her broken relationship with her Greek father (like a shattered piece of black-figure pottery), but at the same time she also, in a shallow, aesthetic sense becomes more Greek: she gets herself a nice tan, embraces her curly dark hair, crosses the length of the Mediterranean sea and begins to learn to read and speak Greek with the help of her father’s young girlfriend. So her development represents a simultaneous approach to and retreat from her Hellenic heritage.
This is an evocative, oddly-written book peopled with unapologetically strange characters. Set in a desert of earth and sea and halfway between a myth and a dream, Hot Milk depicts a series of dysfunctional relationships, culminating the emergence of its protagonist from a cocoon of her own making. The book is available for purchase here and at your local bookstore.