To what degree do labels like mother, father, daughter or son define us? Ideally different relatives will take on different nurturing roles for their family members in times of need. Traditionally it's the mother who is expected to perpetually care and nourish her family. In Deborah Levy's novel “Hot Milk” the mother-daughter roles are reversed. Twenty-five year old Sofia moves with her mother Rose to the desert landscape and jellyfish-laden beaches of Andalucía in southern Spain. Rose has chronic problems with her feet and can barely walk, but these symptoms might be fantasized. Sofia takes out a substantial loan to get her mother treatment in the Gomez Clinic run by an exuberant doctor with questionable credentials and his artistic daughter who he calls Nurse Sunshine. While relations with her mother become strained, Sofia embarks on two separate affairs with an attractive man named Juan and a formidable German woman named Ingrid. She also travels to Greece to meet her estranged father who has married a woman forty years younger than him and given birth to her new baby sister. In this story Levy creates a challenging and fascinating view of families whose constantly shifting dynamics both support and destroy each other.
Sofia's engaging, funny and perceptive voice brings this story to life. She trained as an anthropologist but her career has only consisted of working at a coffee house. The novel starts with her dropping her laptop. Now that the image of the universe used as the background on her screen has shattered, her view of her life and those around her becomes fragmented. The tone of her narrative fluctuates between comic moments such as when she contemplates a cartoon character's personality: “Is Donald Duck a child or a hormonal teenager or an immature adult? Or is he all of those things at the same time, like I probably am? Does he ever weep? What effect does rain have on his mood?” and deeply-moving starkly-metaphorical statements such as “My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep.” She sees the world from a really interesting point of view that made me think differently about ways in which we are perceived and how we perceive others.
I admire the way Sofia's fluid sexuality plays out in the novel. She engages in passionate sexual relationships with a woman and man with equal force stating “Ingrid and Juan. He is masculine and she if feminine but, like a deep perfume, the notes cut into each other and mingle.” Her relationships with them are more determined by their personalities. Her affair with Juan is casual and comforting whereas she finds her affair with Ingrid (who is also in a relationship with a man named Matthew) to be more tumultuous and energizing. In a strikingly symbolic scene Ingrid kills a snake with an axe as if demolishing the need for any man's presence in their lives.
Although many people find her beautiful and seductive, Sofia views herself as something of a monster who swims with jellyfish in the sea (locally known as medusas). At several points in the novel the narrative breaks from Sophia's point of view to short statements from someone who is persistently observing her from a distance. Sophia is conscious of steadily gaining weight and her mother makes her feel ashamed about this: “It is true that I have shape-shifted from thin to various other sizes all my life. My mother’s words are my mirror. My laptop is my veil of shame. I hide in it all the time.” Negative self-perception is also reflected back at her in how Ingrid views her “She wanted to behead her desire for me. Her own desire felt monstrous to her. She had made of me the monster she felt herself to be.” These relationships make a compelling view of the way that women can sometimes sadly demean each other. Also, by focusing on the importance and power of women's relationships to each other she annihilates the notion that a woman's most important relationships are with men: “Neither a god nor my father is the major plot in my own life. I am anti the major plots.”
Images of milk and motherhood abound throughout the novel which gives its title a steadily increasing power. It's suggested that she go to visit a statue of the Virgen del Rosario that “is made from a delicate marble that is the colour of mother’s milk.” At another point she contemplates “Is home where the raw milk is?” Dr Gomez has a cat named Jodo who gives birth to kittens which eagerly feed from their mother in a scene that makes powerful statements about the meaning of nurturing. Sophia watches her young step-mother feed her infant sister from her breast in a way that makes her emphatically stand apart from any traditional notion of engaging with motherhood herself. Instead, she defiantly declares her physical being as separate from that course in life: “I was flesh thirst desire dust blood lips cracking feet blistered knees skinned hips bruised, but I was so happy not to be napping on a sofa under a blanket with an older man by my side and a baby on my lap.”
One of the most powerful lines in the novel comes amidst Sophia's anthropological musings about the power of signs in our culture. She questions the degree to which individuals fit into the common symbols for male or female as seen in signs for public toilets. Subsequently she wonders about the labels in family life: “A wife can be a mother to her husband, and a son can be a husband or a mother to his mother, and a daughter can be a sister or a mother to her mother, who can be a father and a mother to her daughter, which is probably why we are all lurking in each other's sign.” There is something beautifully freeing in this statement that we don't need to feel trapped as any one kind of thing in how we relate to our family members. Our ways of being come out of how our unique familial situation exists at any one point, not out of predefined roles which we must play.
It's interesting thinking about “Hot Milk” in relation to Elizabeth McKenzie's recent novel “The Portable Veblen”. Both centre on women with distinctly original points of view who have difficult hypochondriac mothers that they feel compelled to care for. They each come from different story angles to show how we can grow into different relationships with our parents, that we can move freely between being nurtured and nurturing. However, McKenzie focuses more strongly on the development of a sustainable balanced romantic partnership where Levy's novel is concerned more with developing a substantial individual sense of self outside of society's expectations.
I think “Hot Milk” will continue to have a subconscious effect on me in the future. You know how sometimes you'll recall a scene or character or original point of view from a novel many years after you've read it? There are aspects of “Hot Milk” which I can already feel echoing through me. Deborah Levy has a powerful use of imagery which unsettles in a way that is welcome because it helps broaden my perspective. It's a fantastic, distinctly powerful novel.