“I had broken the rules of exchange. She had given and I had taken, but I had not reciprocated.
A gift like love is never free”
Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk explores the relationship between a woman, Sofia Papastergiadis, and her mother Rose whilst they attend the Gomez Clinic in Almaria in Spain to seek a cure for Rose’s partial paralysis. The novel also pulls in Sofia’s relationship with her father who abandoned them many years before.
Sofia’s relationships with her each of her parents differs. For her mother, there is a key focus on the phyiscal, and for her father there is a greater economic or financial aspect.
Near the beginning Sofia says that she is in debt to her mother
“…I am my mother’s burden. She is my creditor and I pay her with my legs. They are always running around for her”
Throughout the book, Rose’s medical condition exerts its influence on the relationship,
“She is my mother. Her legs are my legs. Her pains are my pains.”
Rose also sees the relationship in physical terms, sometimes quite barbarically,
“I’m enjoying this massage more. You [Sofia] have good hands. If only you could cut your hands off and leave them with me while you go to the beach all day.”
As Sofia is the primary narrator of the novel, the book centres on the support she provides to Rose, and without a clear medical or physical reason for her condition Levy raises the emotional aspect.
“You will notice how in anger, or perhaps with a sense of grievance she is walking”
Towards the end of the book, as their relationship develops and perhaps as the balance of power between the two shifts from Rose to Sofia , and this is reflected in how the imagery moves from mother to daughter,
“My love for her is like an axe. She has grabbed it from me and is threatening to chop off her feet.”
Finally, as Sofia becomes even further distanced from her mother Levy draws attention to a part of everyone’s body which physically linked us to our mothers.
“I waded into the sea up to my belly button, which is the oldest human scar…”
For Sofia the physical aspect is the cost that she must pay to have that relationship with her mother, it represents the obligation that their mutual love requires.
Alternatively, Sofia views her relationship with her father, Christos, in more economic terms,
“I think he understands that I am his confused and shabby creditor.”
She also sees her fathers relationship with Evangeline, her half-sister, through an financial spectrum
“It would be easier for him to have me crash out of his life altogether, yet for some reason he wants me to sign off Alexandra. She is his most valuable collateral.”
The use of these financial terms suggests accountancy, and the ways that Christos should be brought to account for his abandonment of Sofia and Rose. That her fathers’ new wife, Alexandra, is a redundant economist reinforces this view.
Whilst talking to Alexandra, Sofia suggests that her father has not treated her as would be expected,
‘My father only does things that are to his advantage, ‘ I reply
She stares at me as though I am crazy. And then she laughs. ‘Why would he do things that are not to his advantage?’
This comes as a shock to Sofia, who is more accustomed the mutual obligations she has with her mother. The relationship between Sofia and her father is never resolved satisfactorily, and ultimately she gets nothing back from her father as she heads back to Spain.
“Is the sting of being a creditor the sort of power that makes me feel happy? Are creditors happier than debtors?”
The books epigraph is a quote from Helene Cixous’ essay ‘The Laugh of The Medusa’
“It’s up to you to break the old circuits”
This, right from the start, is the message for Sofia. She price demanded by her parents is too great for her, both physically with Rose and economically with Christos but neither is a price that she can pay.
Hot Milk is Deborah Levy’s sixth novel, and was published in 2016 and subsequently shortlisted for the Booker Prize later that year.
I chose it for the re-reading because from the first instance it was possible to see that there are many layers to the story. It is narrated in a fairly flat style, without too much flamboyance, but the repetition of themes and motifs echo throughout, and there is much to be gained from the second reading, and probably the third, if that should happen.