Booker Longlist 2016: Hot Milk Deborah Levy
It’s that time of the year again, the Booker longlist is announced and bestows upon us a veritable sumptuary of novels to sink into, it’s enough to make one take to one’s bed. And the temptations of Hot Milk, Deborah Levy’s latest novel, are sufficient to keep me there. Sofia and her mother Rose, have come to Spain on a last ditch attempt to understand and relieve Rose’s incomprehensible and intermittent paralysis. Mythic, lyric, thoughtful, Hot Milk is a novel that asks what does it mean to be female? What does it mean to be well? What does it mean to be powerful?
Let’s start with the title, which offers itself initially as perhaps the most off-putting thing about the novel. I dislike the title, and yet, I concede, it’s perfect: even the fact that it makes me feel a bit queasy is perfect. Like her previously Booker listed novel Swimming Home, this is a novel which works like a poem, layering up its meanings in indirect and powerful ways. The novel is certainly hot. Set largely in Spain, on an unshaded beach, bordered by a sea full of medusa jellyfish, it is saturated in sunshine. Its concerns with the body ensure that it is hot in two other senses of that term, both erotically charged, and stolen, as the scenes between Sophia and her two lovers are stolen from the timeline of the central narrative. And Sofia’s life is ‘stolen’ from her by her mother; Sofia must steal a fish; Rose complains that she has been ‘robbed’ (of her illness and her money) by the idiosyncratic and charismatic Doctor Gomez. And then there’s milk – the primary connection between mother and child, and a vigorous nod to the feminist literary critic Cixous (whose work The Laugh of the Medusa explores women’s writing, women’s bodies, women’s sexuality through, among other things, references to white ink or mother’s milk). Who knew Hot Milk could be so sexy? Helen Cixous did, and Deborah Levy does. And by the end of the novel, we are in no doubt that this apparently mild title packs a hypnotic, sweetly seductive charge.
The main themes of the novel are identity, savagery, malady, truth. It is hard for women, Levy suggests, to discern the difference between what is real and what is not. On the one hand this is a novel set in the recognisably real, a political and geographical landscape which is harsh, true and irreducible. On the other, everything has a dreamlike quality. Everything is symbolic. We are in the realm of the psychologically real: true in the sense that myth is true. We are dealing here, Levy proposes, not with the body, but with what the body is made to mean. Things look stable until they shatter: the laptop screen, the reproduction Greek vase, the man in the women’s toilet, who turns out to be a woman, Ingrid, who is a seamstress re-inventing cast-offs, embroidering them with words that seem to say one thing but might just as well be saying another. The fabric of Ingrid’s creations is slippery, sensual, kind to the body. But like the other acts of compassion in this novel, her gifts are shot through with a thread of menace. In order not to be disabled, Levy suggests, women have to be bold, to behave badly, to break the structures that seem to hold them steady.
It’s not a flawless novel. It seems to lose pace in the middle section when Sofia goes to Greece to reconnect with her absent father. Yet it is an important section, which prompts us to reflect on how the figure of the daughter is constructed not just in relation to the mother but also in relation to a stepmother only barely older than herself, and a baby half-sister who might be thought to supplant her, but actually is beloved by her. And in that space – Greece - we have cause to re-examine the word, beloved, and think again about what it means to be an object of affection.
But for all this, Hot Milk is a novel which wears its themes lightly. It is funny, intimate, bright. The relationships are drawn with a sureness of touch that makes even the dislikeable characters likeable. It draws on its mythic and intellectual inheritances with a good deal of grace, wears them well, repurposes them in ways that seem both chic and canny. Do I hope it makes the shortlist? For sure. Do I recommend it to you? absolutely.
The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele