Sophie and her mother Rosa have left England for Spain. They are looking for a cure for Rose's numb legs and feet which makes it difficult for her to get around, so they have signed up with the Gómex Clinic in Almería. But this, being a novel by Deborah Levy, you'll find that nothing is as it seems. You can only be assured of sleight-of-hand tricks, a shape-shifting plot line, unexpected outbursts of drollery, and an oracular lack-of-boundries.
This is Sophie telling about her day-to-day bewilderment with life, expounded to a bearded Spaniard on the beach who has fallen in love with her,
While he takes the tiny sliver of glass out of the skin above my eyebrow, I confess that I am often lost in all the dimensions of time, that the past sometimes feels nearer than the present and I often fear the future has already happened.
Or, this about her long-disappeared father, Christos:
If a robber walked into the Rosebud Café with a gun in his hand, Christos would hide behind me so that I would take the first bullet. It would not be to his advantage to do anything else. It was hard to accept that the first in my life was not remotely a hero, and that he would do things that were to my disadvantage if they were to his advantage. Yet it was a revelation that somehow set me free.
It has been years since Sophia's father has dumped her and her mother to move to Greece and remarry. Still, Sophia flies to Athens to visit, uninvited. It's a desperate move, and gets her what you usually get when you seek out one who has abandoned you. Especially with Christos: he has recently found god.
On his way to work the day after her arrival, she joins him and one of his friends:
It must have been a shock for my father to discover that his full-breasted adult daughter from London was of sexual interest to his colleague.
"I am Sofia." I shook his hand.
"I am George." He held on to my hand.
"I am just here for a few days." I let him continue to hold my hand.
"I suppose you have to get back to work?" He let go of my hand.
"Sofia is a waitress, for the time being," my father said in Greek.
I am other things, too.
I have a first-class degree and a master's.
I am pulsating with shifting sexualities.
I am sex on tanned legs in suede platform sandals.
I am urban and educated and currently godless.
I do not resemble an acceptable femininity from my father's point of view. I'm not sure, but I think he thinks that I am not honouring the family. I don't know the details. Papa hasn't been in touch for a while to explain my duties and obligations.
"Sophia wears flamenco flowers from Spain in her hair." My father looks depressed.
"But she was born in Britain and doesn't speak Greek."
"I last saw my father when I was fourteen," I explained to George.
"Her mother is a hypochondriac," my father said in a brotherly tone to George.
"I've been looking after her since I was five," I said in a sisterly tone to George.
My father started to speak over me. Although I did not understand much of what he said, it was clear that he did not see me as a credit to him. He told me not to bother coming into the office and said goodbye outside the revolving glass doors.Levy manages to pack a veritable cornucopia into a relatively small space --- slightly over 200 pages --- and we might look at the whole of Hot Milk not unlike an old car that's been crammed into one of those automobile compacters, smushed down to bite size.
It's a terrific tale of mothers and daughters and fathers and daughters and confusion and old age, sickness, woe . . . and finding love tucked away in strange place; like in the southeast corner desert of 21st Century Spain.
I suppose if we tried to explain Levy's style, we might say things like madcap or sui generis --- but we also have to acknowledge how traditionally she constructs these fictions, all the while stuffing in irruptions, alarums, diversions and, in general, showing a tacky neo-Shakespearian fancy (four centuries after the fact).
For example, take family dynamics. There in Almería, Sofia suddenly finds herself in love with Ingrid. Ingrid is almost Wagnerian, a woman that you expect to appear on stage with plaits and helmet, riding a massive horse (she rides a big Andalusian horse). Too, Ingrid has, only for Sofia, kisses sweeter than wine.
They're in love, so one day when they're on the beach Sofia shows her affection for Ingrid by grabbing her cell-phone and throwing it in the water where "We both watch it float for three seconds with the medusas [jellyfish], pulsating and calm, circling the phone, then it sinks." Ingrid says to Sofia, "you are unruly and chaotic, you are in debt and your beach house is untidy. Now you have thrown my phone into the sea. I don't know what to do, because I'm going to lose work."
"Your clients will have to speak to the fish" says Sofia.
§ § §
You think that's bad? Mother Rose has been complaining to anyone who'll listen (especially Sofia) for months possibly years about her feet, saying she is going to have them amputated because they are so useless to her now. This is despite the fact that earlier that day, Sofia saw her walking along the shore of the beach. "She held a hat in her left hand. Yes it was her, and she was walking. At first I thought she was a mirage because I had been in the desert sun all day, a hallucination or a vision or a long-held wish. She was walking the walk, oblivious to everyone, and she did not see me."
That night, they go for a ride in the car --- wheelchair and all --- and Sophie stops on the freeway to Rodalquilar, says she wants to watch the sunset.
There was no sunset to look at but Rose did not seem to notice.
Out came the wheelchair and fifteen minutes of heavy lifting, Rose leaned on my arm and then on my shoulder as she lowered herself into it.
"What are you waiting for, Sofia?"
"I'm just getting my breath back."
A white lorry was making its way towards us in the distance. It was loaded with tomatoes thrown under plastic on the sweltering desert...
I wheeled my mother in to the middle of the road and left her there.
§ § §
Hot Milk is filled with show-stoppers like this, and --- to spice up her tale and keep us on our toes --- Levy will throw in stuff that makes us want to back up and figure out where she thinks she's coming from.
For example: Gómez takes Sofia and Rose to lunch, orders octopus for himself. He says to Rose, "So you married your Greek man?"
"Yes, for eleven years we waited for a child. And when we at last conceived and our daughter was five, Christos was summoned by the voice of God to find a younger woman in Athens."
"I am myself of the Catholic faith."
Gómez shovelled more extraterrestrial octopus into his mouth. "By the way, Mrs Papastergiadis," Gómez is pronounced 'Gómeth.'"
"I respect your beliefs, Mr. Gómeth. When you get to heaven, may the pearly gates be draped in an octopus drying for your welcome dinner."
And there is a lot of stuff going on, undercurrents of this and that that may or may not mean something. For instance: medusa. The word in Spanish means "jellyfish," and there are lots of them floating around in the ocean there in Almería stinging people like crazy. But those who may be aware of the story of Perseus (I am: I just looked up on Wikipedia), know that Medusa's family drama is the usual ancient Greek tale of intrafamily and interfamily rape and lust and vengeance and betrayal, which gave Medusa a face that can freeze your ass which is why Perseus beheaded her so he can go around flashing her head at people and turning them to stone. Then, get this, Ingrid sews a shirt for Sofia with the tiny letters that read "Beheaded" and we think maybe this means something in the book and perhaps it does. Even though Sofia misread it, thought it said "beloved." See what I mean?
So go into Hot Milk with your eyes wide and expect to be tampered with royally but remember that there are scenes, lines . . . sometimes just words . . . that won't spare you.
Like Levy speaking of our navels. Your navel. My navel.
She calls them "our first wound."