Sofia and her mother, Rose, are spending the summer of 2015 in Almería. Although Sofia spends the day on the beach, this is no holiday. For much of Sofia’s life, certainly from the age of five when her Greek father moved on, Rose has suffered from a mysterious illness which renders her intermittently unable to walk. They have remortgaged Rose’s house in London and come to Spain in search of a cure at the unconventional Gómez Clinic.
I’m always excited when I begin reading a novel with an exceptional narrative voice, and Hot Milk certainly hit the spot, with exquisite phrasing and gentle ironic humour which (slightly to my surprise) put me in mind of Jane Austen. As the previous paragraph testifies, it’s replete with symbolism without slowing the pace: the references don’t sting like the medusa, but wash over the reader like a wave, inviting a second reading (which I’m saving for a later date). This is a powerful novel about illness and disability, female rage and sexuality, the challenge of forging a mind of one’s own in the face of a needy parent and the enduring impact of parental abandonment. In its topical referencing of the financial crisis in Europe, it’s also a political novel.
Having enjoyed Deborah Levy’s previous novel, the Man Booker Prize shortlisted Swimming Home, I was delighted to get my hands on an advance proof copy of Hot Milk, for which I’m indebted to Anna Ridley on behalf of the publisher, Hamish Hamilton. If that pedigree suggests to you that the author has had an easy ride, think again! As this recent interview by Sarah Crown for the Guardian newspaper illustrates, despite her early novels being well received, she struggled to find a publisher for Swimming Home on the basis that it was “too literary to prosper in a tough economy”. Her new fans must be grateful that she persisted in a field in which success is not a direct function of talent and industry and that And Other Stories (publishers of the quirky short novel The Folly which I reviewed earlier this year) picked it up. The swings and roundabouts of Deborah Levy’s career would make a salutary case study for any student of creative writing and the importance of small independent presses for both readers and writers.
Hot Milk is definitely my favourite of the fifteen (!) novels I’ve reviewed this month. Do click on the image to see the full selection of reviews and check whether you agree with my choice. You’ll also find another four fictional heroines in my International Women’s Day post, with the option to vote for your favourite.