We’re all in the same leaky lifeboat

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
  • Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
  • Hamish Hamilton, £12.99
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Every so often you read a book whose author has so acutely captured the human condition in all its anxiety fuelled, confused glory, it’s almost painful to read – like holding a mirror up to your own imperfect self. Deborah Levy has done this and yet manages to elicit a sense of catharsis too – it’s OK, we’re all in the same leaky lifeboat.

Her narrator is 25-year-old half Greek, half Yorkshire anthropology student and barista Sofia Papastergiadis, whose father has a new baby with a much younger woman in Athens and mother, Rose, has a mysterious paralysis of the legs, among other ‘symptoms’.

Mother and daughter are in Spain, where Rose has spent a small fortune to be seen by a private doctor, Gomez. He gives Sofia permission to leave her mother’s side so she swims in the sea – and is stung by jellyfish, attracting the attentions of a lifeguard – and meets Ingrid, a Berlin seamstress, with whom she begins a tempestuous affair.

Surrounded by the oppressive desert heat and the mesmerising figures who move through it, Sofia waits while her mother undergoes the strange programme of treatments invented by Dr Gomez. Searching for a cure to a defiant and quite possibly imagined disease, ever more entangled in the seductive, mercurial games of those around her, Sofia finally comes to confront and reconcile the disparate fragments of her identity.

Hot Milk is a labyrinth of violent desires, primal impulses, and surreally persuasive internal logic. Examining female rage and sexuality, Deborah Levy’s dazzling new novel tests the bonds of parent and child to breaking point.

In just over 200 pages, Levy, who was Booker shortlisted for Swimming Home, deftly deals with the pull-push of mother-daughter bonds, identity, emerging sexuality, and the financial crisis. All while expertly evoking all the physical – and emotional – sensations Sofia is experiencing. It’s enough to put you in a state of mindfulness.