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Hot Milk

by Deborah Levy

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy X
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2016, 224 pages

    Paperback:
    May 2017, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Deborah Straw
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An exploration of sexuality, female rage, mother-daughter relationships, and, ultimately, finding one's own life.

When people reach their early 20s, they often choose to go abroad – they want to get away from parental and career pressures before settling into a steady job, a committed relationship, pets, kids or perhaps home ownership. These adventurous young adults are hungry to find out about the world outside their relatively small confines. They may experiment with new activities or volunteer in professions totally new to them; they may busk on the streets for money for their dinner and might even sleep under bridges. It can be an exciting and confusing time.

This is the experience of the protagonist, Sofia, in Deborah Levy's Hot Milk, a novel that focuses on desires, impulses and experiments. Sofia, an only child in her early 20s, has gone to Spain to sustain her mother, Rose, something Sofia has been doing for most of her life. Rose, who appears to have a limb paralysis and is always in pain, will enroll in yet another clinic that might diagnose and cure her problems. Ever since her Greek father left them, when she was five, Sofia has been her mother's closest companion.

Because she so closely identifies with her mother, Sofia finds herself sometimes developing Rose's odd gait. "I am her legs, and she is lame. I don't know what do with myself. I have started to limp again." Sometimes her mother can actually walk, but Rose most certainly does not let her daughter witness this often. Like many adult daughters, Sofia has remained at her mother's constant disposal.

While in Spain, Sofia grabs some time off from her demanding, housebound mom, and goes to the gorgeous beaches, which, on certain sultry days, are littered with jellyfish known as medusas, which have a nasty sting. Even though on the beach in Spain, bathers are warned not to swim while the jellies are close to shore, Sofia ignores or misinterprets that advice, and she is stung.

The Greek goddess Medusa, with her wild head of snake-like hair, a bit like tentacles, was known to turn people who looked straight at her to stone. But in poet May Sarton's poem, "The Muse as Medusa", staring at an image of Medusa did not freeze the writer. Instead, the female image with untamed hair made the poet own up to her own anger:

I turn your face around! It is my face.
That frozen rage is what I must explore –
This is the gift I thank Medusa for.

While still loving her mother, Sofia begins to express her anger and her sexuality in part because of these unpleasant encounters with the painful medusas. She even admits, " If I were to look at my mother just once in a certain way, I would turn her to stone. Not her, literally. I would turn the language of allergies, dizziness, heart palpitations and waiting for side effects to stone."

In symbolic ways, the jellyfish also act as a catalyst for new friendships. In part, because of her stings, Sofia interacts with two new people: Juan is a local lifeguard who treats the stings, and a quirky, quixotic German woman named Ingrid rubs Sofia's welts as they lie together on the beach. These two young people of different nationalities help Sophia begin to discern what sorts of relationships she desires.

She does not want to be her mother's appendage anymore but has few clear ideas on how to extricate herself. "I want a bigger life," she reflects. At another time, she notes, "I have to pay for my freedom by listening to my mother's words." She feels her affection for her mother " is like an axe. It cuts very deep." The jellyfish cut deep as well, but their pain, in the end, leads to more pleasurable feelings.

For a short while, in a daring and bored mood, Sofia escapes her mother's company to visit her father, whom she has not seen since he left their family, five years ago. He always thought Rose was a hypochondriac, and Sofia begins to agree. Although she rediscovers how cold her father can be, she is forced to loosen another chink in her attached-at-the waist position with her mother.

The ending of Hot Milk is quite unexpected, though perhaps it ought not to be. Ultimately, Sofia makes some personal resolutions, among them to better acquaint herself with a rediscovered part of her family. Pain and anger have helped her grow. However, this daughter still has a few hurdles to overcome to alter her complicated relationship with her mother.

Reviewed by Deborah Straw

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in August 2016, and has been updated for the May 2017 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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