Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor of a bar built on the beach. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath (designed like an envelope), landing screen side down. The digital page is now shattered, but at least it still works. My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else.
So what I am saying is that if it is broken, so am I.
Twenty-five-year-old Sofia Papastergiadis, our narrator, is not the only person in Hot Milk who is broken; her mother is sick and expects Sofia to be her carer. She hasn’t seen her father, who has another daughter to his young wife, for several years.
She is in Almería, Southern Spain so her mother can attend the Gómez Clinic to discover what is wrong with her legs. Her mother has had to remortgage her house to pay the twenty-five-thousand euro bill. Sofia says she’s been ‘sleuthing my mother’s symptoms’ for twenty years but as soon as she thinks she’s close to discovering the issue, ‘Rose merely presents a new and entirely mysterious symptom, for which she is prescribed new and entirely mysterious medication’.
The previous afternoon, Sofia was stung by a jellyfish and had to be treated by a male student whose job it is to sit on the beach treating tourists who get stung.
He told me that in Spain jellyfish are called medusas. I thought the medusa was a Greek goddess who became a monster after being cursed and that her powerful gaze turned anyone who looked into her eyes to stone. So why would a jellyfish be named after her? He said yes, but he was guessing that the tentacles of the jellyfish resemble the hair of the Medusa, which in pictures is always a tangled mess of writhing snakes.
The jellyfish reoccur throughout the story, clearly a metaphor, I thought, for Rose, Sofia’s mother, whose portrayal reminded me most of Carol Ann Duffy’s rendering of ‘Medusa’.
When Sofia’s sting is treated, she has to complete a form which asks for her occupation, amongst other things. She tries to leave it blank. She currently works in a coffee shop in London but ‘I want a bigger life’. She has a first class degree, a master’s degree and an abandoned PhD thesis, left unfinished when her mother became ill. ‘The unfinished thesis I wrote for my doctorate still lurks in a digital file behind my shattered screen saver like an unclaimed suicide.’ Pushed, she writes ‘WAITRESS’ on the form.
On Monday my mother will display her various symptoms to the consultant like an assortment of mysterious canapés. I will be holding the tray.
But while Ruth undergoes her assessment, Sofia begins to live. She has relationships with the student who treats her jellyfish sting and Ingrid Bauer, a woman she meets in Café Playa. Ingrid, in particular, gives Sofia a sense of freedom she doesn’t seem to have experienced before. As Rose is taken off all of her medication by Doctor Gómez, Sofia flies to Greece to see her father and meet her little sister.
The book begins with an epigraph from Hélène Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa:
It’s up to you to break the old circuits.
The phrase could apply to both Sofia and Ruth.
When the receptionist called out for Señora Papastergiadis, I took Rose’s arm and we limped together across the marble floor towards the desk. Yes, we are limping together. I am twenty-five and I am limping with my mother to keep in step with her. My legs are her legs. That is how we find a convivial pace to move forwards. It is how adults walk with young children who have graduated from crawling and how adult children walk with their parents when they need an arm to lean on. Earlier that morning, my mother had walked on her own to the local spar to buy herself some hairpins. She had not even taken a walking stick to lean on, but I no longer wanted to think about that.
The way in which Sofia finally forces the break in dependency is dramatic and was the part of the novel I found least convincing. However, I’m being picky. Hot Milk is an engaging exploration of a hypochondriac mother and the daughter she’s forced to become her crutch. It’s a fascinating portrayal of a mother/daughter relationship and the events that can lead someone to invent ways to keep their child close by them. Levy’s writing is often metaphorical, there are moments in the book not meant to be read as literal or possibly even probable (as I write this I wonder if I’m being too harsh on the ending, that I’ve read it as literal when it shouldn’t have been taken as such), and that elevates the writing to more than a story. There’s a lot to unpick here. Hot Milk stands up to multiple readings and interpretations; if that’s not a sign of a book worthy of its Man Booker Prize and Goldsmiths Prize shortlistings then I don’t know what is.
Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for the review copy.