An opaque tale of grappling with identities, coming to grips with involuntary sacrifices and jousting with a simmering and confused sexuality, “Hot Milk” by Deborah Levy is Sophie Papastergiadis’ predicament with life, lust and a listless state of mind. Sophie’s mother Rose suffers from a strange malady which results in an intermittent loss of lower limb functionality. Finding herself unable to use her legs at frequent intervals, Rose becomes disgruntled, vile and vituperative. As a matter of last resort, Sophie takes Rose to an exotic medical centre in Spain. This centre run by the eccentric Dr.Gomez and his daughter Julieta a.k.a Nurse Sunshine employs unconventional methods of treatment.
Sophie comes into contact with Ingrid Bauer, an athletic and robust seamstress towards whom Sophie develops an irresistible attraction, both physical and psychological. In spite of having a cheery and obliging boyfriend, Matthew, Ingrid not only reciprocates Sophie’s feelings but also unabashedly induces Sophie to become more bolder in her approach and tendencies. As Sophie gets entangled into a dangerous dalliance with Ingrid, she realises that Ingrid has her own share of dark secrets hidden in an invisible vault. Meanwhile Rose is beginning to get vexed with the non traditional direction her treatment is taking and is seriously mulling abdicating her treatment in its entirety and going back home to Yorkshire.
“Hot Milk” is a stellar work of a clash of contradictions, confused priorities and chaotic introspection. Sophie’s loss of confidence and Rose’s infuriating confidence in her own abilities balance out thereby lending a disquieting equilibrium to the relationship between mother and daughter. The book meanders, darts and races through intricate plots and sub plots as Sophie struggles to find herself amidst riotous murky clouds of bewilderment, pain and hopelessness. This utter helplessness is illustrated in stark detail when Sophie in spite of warnings issued, swims the jellyfish infested waters fringing the beach near her home of convalescence and gets stung all over her body. This reckless submission to pain and suffering depicts the depths to which Sophie’s living itself has plunged. She is a mere shallow shell stripped of all substance underneath.
Deborah Levy also instills an element of ‘relevant’ wit which lightens up, albeit superficially and temporarily, Sophie’s existence. This is a book that flows with hues of both darkness and lustre, has a dash of melancholy and mystery; and is marked by both spite and substance. It is fitting that “Hot Milk” distinguishes itself as one of the books longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016.