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Book review: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

I had no idea what to expect from Hot Milk, but as soon as I started reading, I was swept along by Deborah Levy’s beautiful language. This is one of those books which, while reading, you are constantly wondering how she came to write in this way, and how unachievable this kind of writing is for most mere mortals.

The gorgeous, evocative Hot Milk is set in Spain, where a mother and daughter have travelled to find a cure for the mother’s seemingly inexplicable problems walking. However, it soon becomes apparent that it is not just the mother’s legs that need fixing.

In the hot dessert sun, the daughter, Sophia, explores her relationship with her mother and her mother’s illness, and their dependence on each other. Helping her mother walk, Sofia develops a limp of her own. It is clear that she yearns for her own life, but can’t break the hold her mother has over her.

There is a sense of imminent danger throughout the novel, in the slightly sinister characters the two meet in the clinic they attend in search for the cure. The doctor is kind, but there is always an underlying question about his skills and practices, and in the ever present jellyfish that haunt the ocean where Sofia swims. She fearlessly challenges the jellyfish to sting her, and regularly finds herself at a  first aid hut on the beach, being treated for the stings. This fearlessness might be Sofia’s way of testing herself from the painful separation that she hopes will come.

Rather than focusing on the cure for the mother’s legs, Levy centres the story on Sofia’s coming of age and emerging independence.

But the real strength in the book, for me, lay in the mesmerising language that Levy used to convey the dry heat, the languor and Sofia’s sense of yearning. Each passage was a thing of beauty, and I could have kept on reading, regardless of the storyline. Having found this book at an op shop during a coastal holiday where I forgot to take another book, I felt even more keenly my luck at having found such a beautifully told story.

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