Hot Milk by Deborah Levy primarily follows the relationship and journey of Sofia, a young anthropologist who has had to put her PhD on hold, and Rose, her mother who has an inability to use her legs properly. The two are in Spain to visit a specialist clinic run by Dr. Gomez in hopes to understand Rose’s peculiar health problems, and therefore one of the main themes that this novel discusses is illness. Moreover, it is somewhat a coming of age novel in how Sofia tries to form an identity separate from her mother’s.
The aspect of this book that explores Rose’s illness excellently portrays the blurred lines between physical health and mental health, and how one can majorly affect the other. I appreciated this for the reason that many books I have read have approached these two topics as completely separate issues, so it was refreshing to see them tackled together. Through our own interpretations as readers of Sofia and Rose’s interactions, as well as the opinions given from the somewhat questionable Dr. Gomez, as the story progresses it becomes more and more evident that psychological factors have a bigger part to play than what one would initially think. However both Rose and Dr. Gomez are in many ways unreliable characters, and by the end of the book it is still not completely clear what is in fact wrong with Rose. In some ways this is frustrating, but on the other hand I think the novel benefits from the lack of certainty.
Sofia has spent so long acting as her mother’s legs that the two are extremely dependant on each other. Whilst it is to be expected that Rose would rely on her daughter due to her condition, I thought it was interesting how Levy also considered the affects that this dependency would have on Sofia and her life as a young woman. Throughout the novel we see Sofia come to the realisation that she both wants and needs to form an identity separate from Rose’s, and we see her struggle with trying to balance her freedom as well as still care and find answers for her mother. I liked how this freedom was further symbolised through the story line of Pablo’s dog.
Sofia’s character growth can particularly be seen in the relationships she forms with the people she meets in Spain, as well as when she attempts to rekindle her relationship with her father and his family. Sofia has a number of romantic encounters in this book with two characters; a German seamstress named Ingrid, and Juan, who works at the injury hut on the beach. When leaving her mother to spend time with these people, we see their bond strain slightly. And then when Sofia is visiting her father in Greece, we get to see another side of her that isn’t constantly thinking about Rose. Here, we also see her battle with who she is and who her father wants other people to think she is. Moreover, the visit shines a light on another mother-daughter relationship; that of Sofia’s stepmother and baby sister.
Furthermore, I adored how well Levy’s description allowed me to vividly imagine the Spanish setting. I have never visited the country before, but when I was reading I felt as if I was there. In my experience I have found this sense of presence to be rare, so it speaks volumes about the author’s writing ability. It was dream-like, and I think this was down to Sofia’s anthropologist tendencies; she questions things that most of us wouldn’t think twice about, and this introduced a somewhat poetic element to the writing style. I also enjoyed the contrast between the calm and hot beach with the clinical and modern clinic as this helped to create the sense of unease and anxiety one usually feels in such hospital-like settings.
I thought the characters to be utterly strange. I neither particularly liked or disliked anyone despite how there were some characters that seemed to be more shady than others. They all felt a bit cold, however I do not mention this as a criticism, but rather an observation. I usually like to feel strongly about characters, whether that feeling is love or hatred, however I was not bothered by the lack of these emotions I felt when reading Hot Milk. I believe this is linked to how I previously mentioned that the novel benefits from a lack of certainty; it emphasises the dream-like style.
As someone who doesn’t read contemporary or literary fiction often, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I would have given it 5 stars if it were not for the fact that I felt as if I missed some of the symbolism as I am not the most critical reader, and there were a couple of details that confused me slightly. But like I said, I’m not used to the genre, and I rated it an overall 4.5 stars.