They say you can’t judge a book by its… instagram likes – but I think marketing gurus everywhere may beg to differ. Personally, I picked up Hot Milk by Deborah Levy solely because of its inclusion in a wonderfully curated flatlay by Alex Stedman aka @thefrugality, a current girl crush of mine – #influenced!!! Hey, I like her style, what’s to say I won’t like her book choices? And, as stupid reasons for impulse buys go, this one worked out pretty well.
This is a book where wisdom is sprinkled with weirdness, and ambiguity abounds but doesn’t particularly distract. It is thematically relevant to the contemporary reader and, although you are aware there is an underlying complexity and possibly missed symbolism, it is still a quick and engaging read.
Hot Milk is set in Almería, Southern Spain in 2015. It is narrated by Sofia – a 25 year old Englishwoman – who is in equal parts endearing and infuriating. Despite being a little older than the norm for the genre, this is really Sofia’s “coming of age” story.
You see, Sofia’s mother suffers from a myriad of inexplicable health issues, quite likely the psychosomatic symptoms of long-term hypochondria. Sofia has been a carer all her life, but seems often to be little more than a punching bag for her mother’s frustration. Deserted by a wealthy Greek father, both mother and daughter appear to have residual abandonment issues, and their subsequent co-dependant realtionship is both dysfunctional and problematic. I found this unromantic and heartbreakingly realistic – children who become carers and/or surrogate partners can often struggle to cut the chord, to take a vital step back and pursue their own adult life. If they do attempt to forge some independence, the dependant parent can oftentimes fight to keep the bond taut and tight – fearful of losing their human crutch. As both Sofia and her mother are too close to really judge the situation, we figure all this out for ourselves – there is a pattern but the reader must join the dots.
Sofia and her mother have travelled to Spain, at enormous personal expense, to receive treatment at a private clinic run by a vagabond clinician named Gómez. He is either a quack or a genius but he offers what those who are desperate will travel to the ends of the earth for – hope when conventional medicine has failed. In the wake of the Charlie Gard tragedy, the contemporary thematic relevance is as clear as the waters of the Indian Ocean. Here in Ireland, where daily newspapers report on how families will sacrifice their life savings for medicinal cannibas treatment or risky clinical trials abroad, the story also resonates. £25,000 to Dr. Gómez – a small price to pay for an answer, a pittance to pay for a cure!
The exploration of modern universal themes does not end there – Sofia uses the time in Spain to experiment with her sexual orientation – pursuing “relationships” with a beautiful German creative named Ingrid, and Juan, a sweet Spanish boy who works at the beach. Her emotional immaturity seems to make falling in love at best a long shot, and you get the impression she has a lot to figure out about herself first. Like what does one do with academic qualifications in Anthropology? And how do you stop practicing this study of humanity and start living your life with humanity? Sofia’s plight, as a highly educated graduate, earning a living working as a barista, will also resonate with many. She has a 1st class honours degree. She has a masters. She is contemplating a Phd. But when a form asks for her occupation – her confusion subtly hits on a deeper reality for many highly educated young people – the struggle to carve out an actual career. She opts to fill in “Monster” – I like her style!!!!
Personally, I found this to be a book filled with imperfections – some poorly drawn characters, some odd relationships, a regular sense that I was missing some deeper meaning. But all that aside, I really enjoyed the read. It was quick, wonderfully poetic and generally realistic and universally relatable. A quality summer read, that will linger on after the final page is turned. The Guardian used the adjective “hypnotic”, it’s not a mile from the mark, xo.