One of the unexpected pleasures of recent years has been the second coming of the South African-born British novelist and playwright Deborah Levy, born in 1959. When her agents distributed “Swimming Home” — a psychological novel set in the French Riviera with engaged, intelligent women at its heart — for consideration at the end of 2008, major publishing houses in Britain wouldn’t touch it. “Publishers admired my book,” Levy told the BBC, “but were concerned it might not prosper in the tough economy.”
In the end, it was picked up by And Other Stories — an independent subscription-based publisher — and released in the autumn of 2011, to much critical acclaim. Once it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction the following year, it was reprinted as a mass-market paperback in association with Faber & Faber.
In her feminist response to George Orwell’s “Why I Write”,” called “Things I Don’t Want To Know,” Levy wrote that “when a female writer walks a female character into the center of her literary enquiry and this character starts to project shadow and light all over the place, she will have to find a language that is in part to do with learning how to become a subject rather than a delusion, and in part to do with unknotting the ways in which she has been put together by the societal system in the first place.” “Swimming Home,” she continued, revolved around questions of, “What do we do with knowledge that we cannot bear to live with? What do we do with the things we do not want to know?”
Levy’s latest novel, “Hot Milk,” which was recently longlisted for the Booker Prize, finds the author on familiar territory, with female characters at the center of her literary enquiry, speaking for themselves and in their own vernacular, grappling with their inner selves and questions of the mind amid a foreign landscape, with family secrets and sexual tension and desire lurking in the background. It has a quality of otherworldliness and mysticism that comes in part from the dreamy, fluid narration provided by the protagonist, Sofia Papastergiadis, and out of the harsh, alien landscape Levy has sketched out, where even the sea loaded with jellyfish — medusas in Spanish — is somehow threatening.
Sofia is adrift in the world. Having abandoned her doctoral studies in anthropology, she is 25 and working as a barista in a London coffee house, sleeping during the week upstairs from her shop and spending the weekends at home with her mother. “I want a bigger life,” she says. “What I feel most is that I am a failure.” Her mother, Rose, is an evident hypochondriac who asserts her inability to walk or to have feeling in her legs, as well proclaiming a pain when ingesting food or water, yet no doctor has been able to get to the bottom of her ailment. “There are no clear boundaries between victory and defeat when it comes to my mother’s symptoms,” Sofia says. As soon as any doctor makes a diagnosis, “she will grow another [symptom.]”
They are in Almería, Spain, seeking the services of the Gómez Clinic and its iconoclastic, eponymous lead physician, whom the medical professionals suspect of being a quack. “My mother will display her various symptoms to the consultant like an assortment of mysterious canapés,” Sofia notes. The clinic itself is “carved into the scorched mountains”; rendered in “cream-colored marble in the shape of a dome, it resembled a massive, upside-down cup,” and “flowering purple blooms and low, tangled, silver cacti were planted abundantly around.” For the entirety of the novel, Rose seems to be the Gómez Clinic’s only patient.
Rose and Sofia are a mother and daughter locked into a degenerative relationship, their mental and physical well-being intertwined. “You are using your mother like a shield to protect yourself from making a life,” Dr. Gómez rightly observes of Sofia, whose life has ceased to grow, while Rose is able to use her daughter as a crutch, an excuse to live in a no-man’s land between malady and diagnosis. The gaze of a mother upon her daughter is one as powerful as that of Medusa. By novel’s end, the extent of the deterioration of the relationship between Rose and Sofia is made shockingly clear.
Almería also becomes the stage for Sofia’s sexual awakening, with both Ingrid Bauer — whose kiss causes her to shake and realize “I had held myself in for too long, in my body, in my skin” — and Juan, the lifeguard on at the beach, who, in the novel’s opening scenes, treats Sofia’s jellyfish stings. In Levy’s hands, the medusas recall a Greek goddess, Aphrodite, for its assaults on the body have an almost aphrodisiacal effect on Sofia. They grant her self-assurance, “an abundance of desire. I was turning into someone I did not recognize”:
Later, we swam naked in the warm night and he kissed every medusa sting on my body, the welts and blisters, until I was disappointed there were not more of them. I had been stung into desire. He was my lover and I was his conqueror. It would be true to say that I was very bold.
Even if “Hot Milk” does not reach the heights of “Swimming Home,” for it lacks a certain wholeness as a novel, it is nonetheless a captivating demonstration of why Levy is one of the few necessary novelists writing in Britain today. This is the poetry and playfulness of her prose — the way in which she turns a phrase, for example describing Rose as waiting for her withdrawal symptoms from her medication “like a lover, nervous and excited.” More important, Levy grapples with and presents the complex psychology and multiple facets of her female characters like few others, which makes the recent reappraisal of her life’s work all the more welcome.
Liam Hoare is a frequent contributor to the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @lahoare