If I were to draw up a list of contemporary 'issues', it would probably include austerity, precarious employment, non-binary sexuality, the pharmaceutical lobby, animal welfare, agricultural slave labour, cultural hybridity … Hot Milk has them all, but in such a beautiful, strange, hypnotic form it's impossible to feel you've received a lecture on current affairs. Instead, reading the novel is like being sung into a fitful, dream-ridden sleep by a mournful, clever, slightly mad and often very funny woman.
Sofia, the novel's narrator, has abandoned a PhD in anthropology to work in a coffee shop and care for her mother Rose. Rose's inability to walk has baffled the medical professionals in England and lead to a last-ditch attempt to find a cure at the alternative clinic of Dr Gómez on the southern Spanish coast. It is there, under the baking sun and beside a jelly-fish infested sea, that the mother-daughter relationship unravels and Sofia has to learn to live her own life.
This is Deborah Levy's sixth novel, and the second to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (Swimming Home was shortlisted in 2012). She is also a playwright and short story writer, and while Swimming Home seemed to draw on the former skills to produce an edgy, tight drama about depression and repression set around a swimming pool in the south of France, Hot Milk displays all the resonance and depth of the best short stories.
In the middle of the novel, under the therapeutic advice of Dr Gómez, Sofia goes to visit her wealthy Greek father in Athens. He's now married to Alexandra - a much younger woman who was a 'minor mainstream economist' working in Brussels before she had a baby. At one point Sofia complains to Alexandra: 'My father only does things that are to his advantage,' and Alexandra laughs in amazement: 'Why would he do things that are not to his advantage?' she asks.
Why indeed? It is Levy's skill, and a sign of our times, that this sentiment feels hard to argue with until the very end of the Athens episode when Sofia reflects on her mother's life as an abandoned single parent who worked as a librarian and made her daughter packed lunches to save on dinner money and avoid the shame of admitting to poverty: 'She had catalogued over a billion words but she could not find words for how her own wishes for herself had been dispersed in the winds and storms of a world not arranged to her advantage.'
It would be misleading to suggest the novel is just about economics and the difficulty of finding autonomy and direction in this world – particularly for a younger generation saddled with debt and forced into insecure, low-paid work. The book also hums with the desires of a woman in her mid twenties. Sofia often feels a mystery to herself, and is surprised by her attraction to Ingrid, the German seamstress she meets in a beachside cafe. Ingrid provokes a complicated reaction in Sofia – abjection and assertion, pleasure and danger but she's certainly the most interesting thing that has happened to her in a while, signifying movement in place of stagnation, possibility in place of restriction, hope in place of the morose conviction that nothing ever changes.
The book is awash with symbols - surreal signals, symptoms and myths. There are the baffling male/female signs on toilets, the medusa jelly-fish that leave painful wounds on the skin, a pregnant cat, a howling, permanently chained-up dog, and Rose's inexplicable ailments. But the novel suggests it is often our mis-readings of these signs and symbols that propel us into the action which will change our lives. Ingrid embroiders a word on a shirt she gives to Sofia, but Sofia isn't sure if the word says 'Beloved' or something more sinister? In Ingrid's eyes, is Sofia a monster, or the most important person in the room?
Levy has talked about 'shaking up the story that has been written for my gender,' and about the difficulty of writing female personhood. Between Swimming Home and Hot Milk, she produced an eliptical, feminist response to George Orwell's 1946 essay 'Why I Write' (in which he cited political purpose, historical impulse, sheer egoism and aesthetic enthusiasm as his motivations). Levy's essay is called 'Things I Don't Want to Know' and it draws on her life experiences to illuminate, but not explain, her own shifting and often subterranean motivations. 'A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly,' she writes. 'If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly.'
Hot Milk is both calm and intoxicating, like an afternoon on the beach under a blinding sun. But the rage is there, just below the surface.
Helen Pendry works part time in the bookshop.