Review: Hot Milk

Posted on 6th April 2016 by Sally Campbell
Deborah Levy's playful yet dark new novel, Hot Milk, shows the mother-daughter bond in all its terrifying intensity.

The typical slogan for a sun-bleached beach scene with crystal waters is, surely, ‘Come on in, the water is warm’ - but the turquoise sea in Hot Milk is writhing with medusas (the local name for jellyfish); and the writing here is as duplicitous as any jellyfish – it has a glinting playfulness on the surface that houses a deadly sting.

The sting, in this instance, is motherly love, which here, in this world, is more incapacitating than the burn of a medusa. Sofia is a 25-year-old barista, trained as an anthropologist, who has accompanied her ailing, elderly mother to Spain so her mother can received specialist treatment for her various (and mutable) ‘symptoms’.

The mother-daughter relationship, which calls to mind the world of Elena Ferrante, is a noxious one. Sofia is trapped, as she says at one point, trying to make her life small so her mother’s can seem large. She even walks with her mother’s limp, she observes, when her mother isn’t there.  

Taking control, the expensive Spanish doctor, Dr. Gomez, tells Sofia she is free to do as she wishes. Uncomfortable in her newfound, restless, freedom, Sofia begins a tempestuous affair with a German holiday-maker, Ingrid.  

The writing is shot through with an unexpected, surreal comedy that off-sets the darkness; written very much like a stream-of-consciousness (albeit a very neat and precise one), the book captures the way our minds wander from the serious to the absurd, as well as deftly representing, in the mind of Sofia, the dizzying maelstrom of anxious thoughts that can so easily build up in this modern world.

As you read Hot Milk you feel yourself drift off, as though caught by a gentle current… only to be caught unawares by another sharp and delicious thrill.

Levy’s writing is seductive: hers is a crisp, poetic and peculiar prose that is a sheer delight to read.


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