Illustration by Ben Beechener
He held up a finger. ‘You have to stay with me for one more minute, and then I will have to ask again how are you feeling.’
I want a bigger life.
If a book is truly good it will remain in your thoughts for a strong while. Hot Milk did something more than this after I read it for the first time in 2016, touching me deep within and staying with me up until this very day. I think it is because, though at age 15 I probably did not consciously know it, I too wanted a bigger life.
Hot Milk tells the tale of Sofia, a young anthropologist who has been tending to her stubborn mother’s unexplainable paralysis since the age of 5, her attempts to come to terms with her own life journey, and the various ways it may have run astray. Set in Spain, at the curious clinic run by Dr. Gomez, both Sofia and her mother, who Sofia refuses to call anything other than her Christian name, Rose, battle with the way their lives have developed up until this trip and how they might play out in the future.
Sofia Papastergiadis might be a 25 year old of mixed Greek and English descent with divorced parents, whereas I am from a bog-standard white British, two-parent household, but every time I reread her narrative I resonate with different aspects of her very different life. The way she articulates her feelings about her life experiences continually helps me reflect on my own, validating and challenging my own attitudes to life, just one small way this book made me.
I am not okay. Not at all and haven’t been for some time.
Deborah Levy’s first person, stream-of-consciousness style narration was one of the first times I had come into contact with such open discussions of mental health in a realistic and relatable way. The way Sofia recognises that she is not okay but continues to place herself in impulsive, reckless, and harmful situations is an honest depiction of the difficulties of processing your feelings in a healthy way. While not endorsing self-destruction, Levy validated my frustration at the ways I sometimes processed my feelings and treated my mental health by showing me a character who, too, faces these issues and makes mistakes along the way.
I want to get away from the kinship structures that are supposed to hold me together.
Hot Milk also comforts me on issues close to home. Family and “kinship structures” are more often than not depicted in a binary of either harmonious or broken, making it difficult sometimes to identify your own experiences within the narratives. Sofia’s complicated relationship with her dependent mother and distanced father cut far further into the complexities of familial relationships. Being able to relate to the different emotions that come with these kinds of relationships was stirring to me. Seeing the way in which Sofia’s love and empathy for her mother intertwined with resentment, anger and a kind of wall of numbness, validated my own mixed feelings towards my home life and showed me that the way one feels emotion towards a relative is not always black or white.
This time I left everything blank, except under occupation I wrote Monster. He looked at the form and then at me. ‘But you are a beautiful woman,’ he said.
Hot Milk also helped alter my own attitudes towards body image. Since the core of the plot revolves around Sofia’s mother, Rose, being unable to walk without pain, the body is a central theme of the book. Levy balances the body’s functionality versus beauty, and ugliness versus beauty so as to force the idea that a body is merely a vessel. Crucially, she does not detract from the sexual power and physical utility bodies have, rendering the body as something which can only gain rather than something which loses points for flaws. Such a take on the body continues to challenge the way I view and deal with my own body image.
Ingrid and Juan. He is masculine and she is feminine but, like a deep perfume, the notes cut into each other and mingle.
The way sexuality and love are treated in this book, as fluid and volatile rather than strict and binary, is refreshing and comforting in a world which consists of boxes and labels. Sofia’s spontaneous and shifting relationships with Ingrid and Juan emphasised to me the idea that attraction and feelings towards another person can happen in unexpected ways and to limit this fluidity would mean being untrue to yourself.
Sofia repeatedly emphasises how she wants a “bigger life” and when I was 15 and first reading Hot Milk, this was what I wanted. However, on my second and third readings it became apparent to me that it isn’t necessarily that Sofia wants her life to be bigger, just her current life to be smoother, more stable and therefore smaller in the ways it takes up her emotional capacity. In all of the ways I have outlined, from mental health to family relationships, I too have grown to realise it wasn’t a bigger life I really wanted, but a way to deal with all of the difficult feelings that made my life seem small and non-moving. This book made me, and hopefully can inspire others too, by showing me that I am not alone with these complex feelings and that difficulty processing these emotions is perfectly okay.