Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

I first saw Hot Milk in the recommended books section at Green Apple Books in San Francisco. Its beautiful cover and intriguing title drew my attention but I passed on it to save room in my suitcase. This past Christmas, a friend gifted it to me from an equally cool bookstore here in Toronto, ReReading, and I was excited to read this pretty book.

Hot Milk follows Sofia, a young girl in her twenties, who has travelled to the Spanish coast with her mother, who suffers from a mysterious condition which prevents her from walking intermittently. Between the treatment of the eccentric Dr. Gómez and the colourful characters the mother and daughter meet in Almeria, the whole thing reads like a Wes Anderson dream.

I both loved it and hated it. On the one hand, there is very little prose and poetry in my life right now, and so to be confronted and confounded by a piece of writing was refreshing. I definitely enjoyed myself reading Hot Milk. On the other hand, I have honed my dislike for the purposelessly opaque and ornamental language which Levy employs through my years of literary studies.

Here is a segment which I first really enjoyed when I read it, but imagine this page after page after page:

My mother had instructed me to wash her yellow dress with the sunflower print on it because she will wear it to her first appointment at the Gómez Clinic. That is fine by me. I like washing clothes by hand and hanging them out to dry in the sun. The burn of the sting started to throb again, despite the ointment the student had smeared all over it. My face was burning up but I think it was because of the difficulty I’d had filling in ‘Occupation’ on the form. It was if the poison from the medusa sting had in turn released some venom that was lurking inside me. On Monday, my mother will display her various symptoms to the consultant like an assortment of mysterious canapes. I will be holding the tray.

Sofia is definitely a character you’re not supposed to like easily, and neither is her mother. I’ve never had a problem with unlikeable characters, especially for what they can do to drive a plot and create interesting dialogue. Hot Milk’s plot was weak, seeming to fold into itself, never really moving forward until the end which builds a sense of frustration, replicating the feeling Sofia experiences with her mother’s illness. Getting a sense of each character proved a challenge with the text often blurring the lines between thoughts and narration. Instead, all of the writing is focused on imagery but a book can’t stand on imagery alone. Images were repeated often and seemingly without reason aside from art’s sake. 

It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016 though, so many people clearly enjoyed this literary style. My final word on it is: if you’re looking to be put out of your comfort zone you can definitely give it a try.

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