Review: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

hot-milkLook, I’m just going to come straight out and say it: why is Hot Milk shortlisted for the Booker? Deborah Levy’s slight story of a mother and daughter having a rubbish holiday in southern Spain starts off reasonably sensibly, with the reader’s sympathies for narrator Sofia firmly established as she details her life with a hypochondriac mother, who may or may not suffer from a debilitating condition that renders her unable to walk. Except that sometimes she does walk. Which is confusing.

It seemed pretty clear to me that Rose, the mother from hell, was pretending not to be able to walk just to torment Sofia, who suffers from a paralysis of her own: a metaphorical one which means she talks about anthropology a lot but never actually does any. Sofia blames her mother for the fact that she ha to abandon her PhD but if her thesis was going to be anywhere near as meandering as her narrative, I can’t see her attaining a serious career in academia anyway.

Here’s the main problem; although nothing particularly unbelievable happens in Hot Milk (insofar as anything happens at all), the dialogue is so clunky and unrealistic that I ended up squinting at it to see it the words on the page were really as bad as the words I seemed to be processing. Having embarked on a lesbian love affair that seems to come out of nowhere, Sofia enjoys such lyrical conversations as this:

“You should make something with your hands.”
“Like what?”
“A bridge.”

In case you’re wondering, no: this doesn’t make any more sense in the context of the novel. The only speech that really makes sense comes on the three thousand occasions when Rose says, “get me some water, Sofia,” but then that’s so rude it made me want to smack myself round the head with this book in case that got me out of reading it.

All in all, I was not impressed with Hot Milk. Clearly this means it will probably win the Booker. If you’re after a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, I’d steer you in the direction of Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen, which is far more entertaining and manages to make more sense despite the frequency with which the main character talks to squirrels.

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