What can be more fraught than a mother/daughter relationship? British novelist, Deborah Levy, takes this to the extreme in her sizzling novel, Hot Milk. If the metaphor of mother’s milk is supposed to be comforting, with warm milk as its logical complement, then consider hot milk as turning the metaphor upside-down. Except that in Levy’s novel, the milk is boiling, likely to scald you like the jelly fish (known as Medusas) in the context of the setting in a Spanish beach town where the waters are so infested with the creatures that there’s a full-time guard to help swimmers deal with their stings. Sofia has come to the place along with her mother, who seeks medical treatment for her damaged legs. Sofia’s mother is a monster, just like Medusa, and it’s difficult to determine whether the jelly fish or her mother will burn her the most.
Sofia is twenty-five, her mother, Rose, is sixty-four. Thirteen years ago, Rose’s husband (who is Greek) walked out on them, and it’s apparent that, ever since, Rose has done everything she can to keep her daughter captive to her selfish needs. Sofia dropped out of graduate school, didn’t finish her doctorate (she’s an anthropologist), ostensibly to take care of her mother’s increasing mobility problems. Rose cannot walk, though doctors have not been able to determine the reason why. As a last resort, Rose has come to Spain (from London where she lives) to consult with a Spanish doctor, who may or may not be a quack. She’s dragged Sofia along with her, just as she’s controlled her daughter’s life ever since the two of them were abandoned by Rose’s husband. Worse, the clinic is so expense that Rose has had to mortgage her house to pay the astronomical fee the Spanish doctor charges. Sofia understands that it’s the end of her inheritance because there’s been no communication with her father for all the years since he fled.
Sofia is convinced that her mother’s extremity “problems” are imaginary, designed to keep her chained to her mother. She waits on her, obeying her every request, though Sofia also knows that when Rose needs something and her daughter is not with her, that Rose simply crosses the room and gets what she needs. Sofia makes a series of revealing observations, spread throughout the novel, beginning with, “My mother’s feet are mostly on strike, but I’m not sure what she is negotiating for or what the deal breaker would be.” Later she will embellish this: “My mother can feel a fly landing on her feet.” Then, much later, after the Spanish doctor confesses that he can do nothing for her, Sofia notes, “My mother has abdicated, resigned, relinquished, declined, waived, disclaimed everything and she has taken me down with her.” One further observation: “My mother has chosen to keep her daughter in her place, forever suspended between hope and despair.”
At the beach town, Sofia has sexual encounters with both a man and another woman, neither of them particularly satisfying because what she needs more than anything else is to escape from her mother. Without much thought, Sofia decides to fly to Greece and visit her father, who is rich, and has married a young woman four years older than she. Her father and his young wife have already had baby, who is thus Sofia’s half-sister. One day during Sofia’s short visit, Alexandra (her father’s second wife) confides in her about her marriage to the old man: “Sixty-nine is early old age, really…. He needs to pee all the time and he’s a little deaf now, and he’s tired all the time. His memory is a big problem. At the airport, when he came to fetch you, he forgot where he parked the car. I would be grateful if you could take the X95 back to the airport when you leave. When we walk together he cannot keep up with me. He needs a new hip. But he has now got four new teeth. When he goes to bed he takes out his lower plate on the ground floor and puts it in a jar of solution.” Quite an enduring portrait.
It doesn’t take Sofia long to realize that although her father hasn’t seen her for many years, he’s not interested in her. He’s such a tight-wad that he’s not going to help her financially. There’s a revealing moment when just before she leaves he tells her that he wants to give her some pocket money, handing her ten Euros. Sofia immediately gives the money to a passing beggar, but her father misses the irony. Thus, she flies back to Spain, thinking that she will be chained to her mother for the rest of her life. Rose has begun saying that she wants her feet amputated in order to ease her discomfort; Sofia knows that this is all a further trick to keep her captive forever.
There are some starting incidents at the end of this mother/daughter battle. I confess I had no idea how Deborah Levy was going to end her mostly plotless story, but what she does with her characters, finally, is forceful and reassuring. Perhaps the most debilitating relationship between a mother and a daughter can turn unexpectedly and break away from a potentially tragic ending.
Deborah Levy: Hot Milk
Bloomsbury, 218 pp., $26