Rose and her daughter Sofia arrive in a small Spanish fishing village – a strange, dreamlike place caught between the searing heat of the desert and the mesmerising pull of the sea. They are desperately seeking medical help and salvation. Rose suffers from a mysterious, inexplicable illness, which presents in spontaneous, spasmodic paralysis of her legs and has left her wheelchair bound. Her daughter, Sofia, has spent her life trying to understand her mother’s illness, trapped in an unhealthy co-dependent relationship and forced to act as her bemused carer. The mystery of this undiagnosed illness forms the background of the entire novel. Sofia explains, “I have been sleuthing my mother’s symptoms for as long as I can remember. If I see myself as an unwilling detective with a desire for justice, is her illness an unresolved crime? If so, who is the villain and who is the victim?”
Surrounded by the oppressive summer heat and the eccentric figures that inhabit it, Sofia waits patiently while her mother undergoes a strange, unorthodox programme of treatment invented by the mysterious Dr Gomez. Sofia becomes seduced and almost bewitched by the dysfunctional people surrounding her and entangled in the games they play. Yet, as she explores her sexuality and pent-up rage, she begins to confront and reconcile the fragments of her life.
Sofia’s increasingly erratic, self-destructive behaviour – repeatedly swimming with jellyfish, embarking on a secret affair with a bizarre German woman – seems to bring increasing clarity to her familial relationships. Through such experimentation she finds answers to questions she didn’t realise she needed to ask. Sofia’s struggles and subsequent inner reconciliation with her mother and father are both convincing and moving.
Deborah Levy’s hypnotic novel explores the fragile bonds of parenthood and lays bare the suffocating intensity of familial bonds. For me, the success of the book lies in the strange, almost hallucinatory atmosphere Levy creates. Her use of the physical landscape and stifling weather to mirror Sofia’s inner journey works beautifully. The reader is left almost gasping for a break from the feverish tension that Levy creates and the surreal, dreamlike quality she gives to her prose made this unusual book stand out for me.
Hot Milk is published by Hamish Hamilton, 224 pages.