In her Man Booker shortlisted Hot Milk, Deborah Levy invites us to travel to Almería (Andalusia, Spain) with Yorkshire exiles Sofia Papastergiadis and her mother Rose. The book is far from a beach-read, I found the building of tension and sweaty frustration made it read as more of an existential thriller.
Their displacement was occasioned by Rose’s strange illness, a psychosomatic paralysis in her legs for which UK doctors prescribed anti-depressants. Sofia and her mother are in search of a healer who can galvanise Rose back into action. Having remortgaged Rose’s house and put a doctoral thesis on hold, the trip seems the climax of a desperate search for answers after a long illness. At different stages in their un/coming-of age crises, the women find out that in this clinical seaside resort, the midday sun is no panacea but exacerbates personal trauma.
Doctor Gomèz, emperor of the marble dome of medicine, seems to prescribe in according to his personal grievances – he hasn’t finished mourning the death of his wife. Rose’s own estranged husband has left wife and daughter to start again in Athens. His much younger replacement family is part of the reason for a renegotiation of roles back in Yorkshire. Attending on her selectively incapacitated mother, Sofia’s redomestication renders her both mother and child.
Within the first turn of a page, Sofia is stung by one of the jellyfish ubiquitous to this coastline. The pain Levy inflicts on her characters makes me think she doesn’t really like people that much. (This isn’t a very informed judgement because I haven’t read her other work.) At the bottom of the food chain, Sofia and her mother are preyed upon as drifters, who struggle to leave the medicated, caffeinated reliefs of home behind.
Levy redeems herself with Ingrid: the object of Sofia’s unrequited love. Ingrid is a German warrior seamstress whose needlework wraps the fabric of the novel together. She is the source of clarity the book needs, I wish I had had the chance to spend more time in her company.