Hot Milk, the new novel by Deborah Levy that’s on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, feels surreal. It’s not really: Little happens in the book that can’t be explained by the rules of logic and realism. But Levy’s language is so precise, so dreamlike, that reading it takes the reader into some heightened, impossible state.
The tortured, possessive relationship between mother and daughter forms the core of Hot Milk. The daughter here is Sofia, a young English girl who recently dropped out of her anthropology PhD program to accompany her mother, Rose, on a medical pilgrimage intended to cure Rose’s wide array of mysterious, possibly psychosomatic illnesses.
Sofia resentfully looks after her mother, bringing her what always turns out to be “the wrong sort of water”; Rose is resentfully dependent on her adult daughter, and responds by forcing that daughter to be dependent on her. The book’s title reflects this connection, using the symbol of mother’s milk to evoke an intimacy that verges on the parasitical.
Halfway through the book, Sofia learns that her mother has decided to amputate her numb feet. She is furious, in a moment that epitomizes the painful affection and muffled hatred that exists between Sofia and Rose, and the undercurrent of violence that runs beneath all of their interactions:
“Get me water, Sofia. Water that is not cold.”
I am a female slave and a female wine drinker.
I bring my mother water that has been boiled in the kettle but has not been chilled in the fridge. It is still the wrong sort of water. I am learning that there are more acceptable shades of wrong. I no longer speak to her. The news of her wish for the amputation has shocked me to the core. She has forsaken her right to any kind of conversation with me because she has replaced words with the surgeon’s knife. I cannot live with the violence of her intention or her imagination. In fact, I’m not sure what kind of reality I am living in right now. I don’t know what is real. In this sense my own feet are not firmly touching the ground. I no longer have a grip. My mother has abdicated, resigned, relinquished, declined, waived, disclaimed everything and she has taken me down with her. My love for her is like an axe. She has grabbed it from me and is threatening to chop off her feet.
That final image of severing, amputating, chopping with an axe — it recurs again and again throughout the book, and always it is an act of love. It is so tender that Sofia finds herself unable to distinguish between the words beloved and beheaded.
In Hot Milk, love is violent and possessive; to balance that violence, the language is soft, dreamy, and evocative. It is aggressively un-visual, almost opaque, but you get the sense of unseen life teeming all around you.
Reading it is, in other words, like being submerged in hot milk.