Strange, Seductive and Powerfully Sensual: Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk”

61ud2qngezl-_sl300_Oh my gosh what an exciting novel Hot Milk is. I was a bit worried by the title that I was about to read some sort of weird MILF erotica. Just to be clear, it isn’t MILF erotica (or any other kind of erotica). It is a very sexy novel, but not in the way you’re thinking.

It’s the story of Sofia and her mother, Rose. They are in Spain seeking treatment for an ailment that has stumped Rose’s doctors in England.

Sofia at 24, is an example of “failure to launch.” She has quit her PhD in anthropology to care for her mother. She works in a coffee shop. She has no romantic relationships, no home of her own. She failed her drivers licence four times. Seriously – four times! I’m in no place to criticise here, but she didn’t even pass the theory!

In Spain Sofia drops her laptop, shattering the screen. By breaking the laptop screen she also breaks the spell that has bound her gaze to it. Freed, she turns her anthropological eye upon herself. It’s the beginning of her discovery of her sexuality, her seductiveness and her inner monster.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Sofia and Rose crackles with tension and hums with rage. Between them they are stuck. But as the epigraph of the novel instructs: “It’s up to you to break the old circuits.” And it is up to Sofia and Rose to narrate their own new legends.

Levy’s writing is itself powerfully seductive. It as warm as the air of southern Spain. It’s smooth and divine and devilishly funny. It’s also terribly sensual. The story has an ethereal quality that makes it feel hard to pin down at first, but the golden thread of Levy’s metaphors lead us to see both the divine and the mortal in Sofia.

Romola Garai’s velvety narration brings divinity to the seductiveness of Levy’s prose. It’s a perfect match of book and narrator. Garai’s voicing, timing, characterisation – it’s all perfect. I hope she’ll find time in her busy schedule to narrated other audiobooks. Bravo Ms Garai, and bravo Ms Levy. A beautiful combination.

I’m not a classicist so I keep the internet handy when I’m reading. I get really excited by references that help me understand the book I’m reading better. In this instance I hunted down “milk as metaphor” (“hot milk” is semen for those interested. I wonder who else was visiting Juan in the injury hut! Otherwise “milk” can refer to spiritual immaturity, which I liked as a metaphor in this instance, or “mother’s milk”). I also read about the myth of the Medusa, the beautiful, strong maiden who is turned into a powerful monster, later beheaded at the command of Athena. Also The Laugh of the Medusa, the essay from which Hot Milk takes its epigraph. Keep an ear out for David Bowie lyrics too!

Did I mention I loved this book? I loved this book. Seriously, loved it. It’s long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and is a very worthy contender.

Hot Milk • Deborah Levy • read by Romola Garai • 8.5 hours • published by Penguin Books Ltd. • March 24, 2016

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