Deborah Levy is an acclaimed British playwright, novelist and poet. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Levy’s work has been staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The author is known to gracefully leap between genres and maintain an exquisite quality of literature in each one of them. Levy can be described as a postmodern writer as most of her works have a fragmented element of surrealism that focuses largely on the narrative. Hot Milk is one such piece that had been shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.


I have been sleuthing my mother’s symptoms for as long as I can remember… If I see myself as an unwilling detective with a desire for justice, does that make her illness an unsolved crime? If so, who is the villain and who is the victim?

Sofia Papastergiadis, the protagonist of the book, is a young anthropologist hunting for a cure for her mother’s ever-present and often psychosomatic illness of the legs that has left her virtually lame. The mother-daughter duo have mortgaged everything to come to a beach town in Spain for treatment from the famous medical consultant, Dr. Gomez, whose unorthodox methods set into motion a tentative yet entirely unreliable path to recovery. And thus begins Sophia’s lethargic adventure against the backdrop of a beach filled with jellyfishes as she grapples with her own identity and a hope to finally define it.

The whole narrative is painted as a dreamlike sequence that evokes the reader to let go and float with Sophia. The strange, doubting rant of the protagonist seems to be all questions as she thinks out loud about her own predicament and all the symbols around her catch the attention of her anthropological eyes. The magical language evokes certain sentences multiple times throughout the book, thus connecting the dots with the spider-like web of the hearty nonchalance that is evident throughout the novel.

My love for her is like an axe. She has grabbed it from me and is threatening to chop off her feet.

The book focuses more on the characters than on the plot, which moves languidly as if navigating the jellyfish-infested sea that the author repeatedly alludes to. The characters, on the other hand, may not have a lengthy background arc but, nonetheless, exude a powerful presence as each character has been presented in a different shade, all of which come together to form an iridescent aura around the book. Be it the eccentric doctor, who sometimes responds in a completely nonsensical manner to generic questions, or the bold Ingrid, who is unsure of her own desires yet sure of the power she has over the protagonist – Levy has breathed life into her characters, who seem to be critical parts of the fluid plot of this unique novel.

The most appealing element, however, of Hot Milk is the way language has been used in it. The book contains an undeniably slow, simmering beauty of words that flow on to every page, as if forming the night sky with constellations made of literary symbols and metaphors. The author has expertly molded the raw materials of words into breathtaking structures of sentences and phrases, which unerringly capture the subtle movements of the human body and mind like few other writers could ever have.

Ameya Rating:

The book is replete with a poetic density that makes it far from an easy read. That being said, the foundation of all great books is laid on a subtle give-and-take relationship with the reader – they demand a lot of patience from the reader and eventually reward him with a fulfilling storyline. And make no mistake, Hot Milk is one such masterpiece. It may be hard to read more than once as it calls for the readers to delve into the deepest recesses of their minds, which is quite a daunting task. The experience, though, is completely worth the effort. The book merits 3.5 stars out of 5 for the beauty with which it arrests the reader.

The only criticism one can direct at it is the lack of an engaging plot. However, it doesn’t need an extraordinarily sharp mind to perceive that an undercooked plot can also serve as a gateway for the narrative to flow out of the pages and straight into the reader’s heart.

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