Judging the sizzling cover image and the interesting title many make mistakes about the content. But the plot in the book reflects the unmistakeable coldness of our frozen lives. Yet the warmth of writing is felt across the pages always. Sayanti Mukherjee calculates the latent heat in Hot Milk.
Deborah Levy sets her story in sun-glazed southern Spain, where the protagonist Sofia Papastergiadias has taken her mother to find a cure for her mysterious paralysis. There are days when Rose feels strong enough to walk to the local grocery, while on others, she is confined to her wheelchair, binding her daughter to the shackles of her frustration and hysteria. The relationship between Rose and Sofia is complex, yet founded on the grounds of trust, dependence, and an instinctive companionship. Sofia was abandoned by her father when she was a toddler to remarry and start a family in Greece. She was brought up single-handedly by her mother against all odds and now it’s her sole responsibility to reciprocate the debt by taking care of her. When her mother limps painfully, so does she, as she pronounces, “My legs are her legs.”
The journey that Sofia is on is long and arduous. Rose, her mother is head-strong, fault-finding, sarcastic; her piercing gaze and cynicism are scathing. She never misses an opportunity to take it out on her daughter, sometimes bursting into fits of mad rage, while at others fussing over the “right kind of water” to be served to her, the right way. Sofia has mortgaged their house in London to fund the trip and has abandoned her education in this relentless pursuit of finding a cure for her mother. She understands that there is little hope for her to escape, to find a better life, to be happy. In one of the passages, she confesses:
“If I were to look at my mother just once in a certain way, I would turn her to stone. Not her, literally. I would turn the language of allergies, dizziness, heart palpitations and waiting for side effects to stone. I would kill this language stone dead.”
They start visiting the clinic of doctor Gomez, who might as well be a quack, imposing strange pronouncements to his patient. The clinic is built from a “cream-colored marble in the shape of a dome”, where Sofia feels “lost in a labyrinth of milky marble corridors” and feels “smothered by the veined walls”. The clinic pulsates with an alien maternal energy where we meet Miss Sunshine, Dr Gomez’s daughter, who having lost her mother in her early childhood has developed an air of stoicism about her; she is never happy, she never smiles, and then Jodo the fat, white cat, tiptoeing from corner to the other, protecting the babies in her womb.
The novel begins with Sofia accidentally dropping her laptop on the floor, as it shatters to pieces. Sofia reminisces her screensaver, a purple sky of constellations and laments, “My laptop has all my life in it…. if it is broken, so am I.”. The novel is her journey to pick up the broken pieces of her bizarre life, to fix the frayed bond with her mother, and to emerge victorious in bridging the gap between truth and identity. The trope of memory runs strong in the novel. Sofia is a student of anthropology, and her stalled doctorate is on cultural memory, and memory – ‘the struggle to live in all the dimensions between forgetting and remembering’ – is really what the whole novel is about.
Hot Milk is a novel of survival, of how one can battle a strange disease, an alien country, a sea full of poisonous jelly fishes, the prowl of a chained Alsatian, the scorching sun and the unforgiving sea, and the complexity of a strange relationship between a mother and a daughter. It is a journey strewn with obstacles, yet there is hope in the rare sight where Sofia watches her mother walk along the beach in a sunflower dress, in the connect that Sofia feels for her young step-mother, in the paper flower that her father makes for her from a napkin, and the possibility of love in a mysterious Greek woman named Ingrid Bauer. The prose of the novel is simple, yet poetic, with a constellation of symbols and narrative bursts. Levy’s symbolism is curated with care in a web of allusions and analogies that immerses the readers into the world of Sofia Papastergiadias and the universal experience of her struggle to survive.
Title photograph by Mante Klingaite
Next post on 21st February.