Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Long-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, this novel comes after a long history of successful poetry, novels, and screenplays by Levy, so we are primed to find it praiseworthy. And it is, but she very nearly tips us into the deep, endlessly cycling the trauma of caring for someone apparently suffering a psychosomatic illness. To make it thrilling, Levy throws in parallels to Europe’s debt crisis and America’s pushy Big Pharma colonization. If you take the cover story as what Levy was trying to convey, you miss the beauty of her satire and the humor in her (wo)man-made disaster.

Sofia Irina is a half-British half-Greek anthropologist, trained to look for cultural memory which links the past to our present attitudes and actions. She quit working on her Ph.D. ostensibly to care for her mother, who is unable to walk. No explanation can be found for the mother’s malady so mother and daughter travel to Spain in hopes a specialist there may be able to elicit a cure.

The Doctor they have contracted with in Spain is a traditionalist who eschews Big Pharma, represented by a handsome gnat of a young man who seeks to discredit the Doctor’s carefully staged proofs that the illness Sophia’s mother suffers are in her head. The Doctor has a sexy Sunny vodka-swilling daughter who works with him and represents Spain’s youthful disdain for the old ways. It goes on like this, each character representing something larger than themselves, culminating in Levy's masterpiece: a luscious blond German autocrat attractive to both sexes who manages to import old fabrics from China and export them again at a markup after she adds her skillful embroidery.

An early scene which derailed a fine reviewer was the one where Sophia, delighted to find herself by the beach in sunny Spain, swims far out only to be stung by the swarms of medusa jelly-fish that have become a menace due to overfishing. (The birthplace of Medusa is Greece.) She runs back to shore to be treated for the painful stings, only to realize late that her bikini halter has broken and she is topless, jiggling insanely as she stomps about with the pain.

Besides the enormous fun we have with Levy’s impersonation of financial crises, there are other themes Levy raises about an adult daughter caring for her mother in illness. Again and again in the course of the novel, we are pointed to the notion that some people would never consider doing things that are not to their own advantage. This notion is first explicitly stated when Sophia visits her estranged and happily remarried father to ask for financial assistance or, at the very least, moral support for her efforts to care for his first wife. What some might consider his debt or obligation, he refuses to honor. His new young wife snorts with derision that he would consider doing anything not to his advantage.

Women—wives, mothers, daughters, sisters—often do things not strictly in their best interests. They do it out of love, usually, or say they do. But when one is the head of one’s own household, one is responsible for oneself—to oneself—to manage, to persist, to succeed. How one succeeds is not always by putting oneself first. [I might point out that people who put themselves first in every instance are the most unbearable and uncivilized bores, to say nothing of the possibility of culpability in a large societal context.]

There is more in this novel: forbidden love and lustful sex, fabulous deep white cotton sheets from Berlin, blue embroidery thread that spells out a mistaken and potentially lethal message, a pregnant white cat and a chained dog who howls whether or not he is leashed. I don’t want to take all the fun out of this novel by speculating on possible meanings of these for readers. Keep your eyes and mind open for the delights this novel offers and try not to be frustrated with the air of post-adolescent confusion. The claustrophobia of a strictly line-by-line reading might lead one to underestimate what Levy was attempting. If the stage is set for a close (re)reading, I think you will find yourself instead enjoying Levy's facility with keeping many balls in the air at one time, once again earning our respect.

I was helped in understanding this novel by many reviewers at the online site Goodreads, including one in particular, whose great insights pushed me to examine my initial lackluster evaluation more closely.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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