When family relationships reach boiling point
As hypochondria drains the lifeforce from a mother-daughter relationship, a sultry Spanish city brings a reawakening. Matthew Adams savours Hot Milk
Deborah Levy’s latest novel is concerned with the causes, and the destructive force, of hypochondria. It addresses what can happen to a person, as Levy has phrased it in a number of interviews, when they come to love “their symptoms more than they love anyone else”, and asks what effect such an affliction can have on those who are closest to them.
Levy approaches these themes through the figures of a mother, Rose, and her daughter, Sofia. Rose, a former librarian who, at the age of 64, describes herself as “flagging”, is a committed atheist (“She had no God to plead to for mercy or luck ... she depended instead on human kindness and painkillers”) who is suffering from a mysterious, and mysteriously intermittent, form of paralysis that most of the time prevents her from walking.
Sofia is a 25-year-old anthropology student forced to abandon her PhD through her mother’s illness. She spends her time working in a cafe and “sleuthing” her mother’s symptoms. She refers to her “pathetic miniature life”; says “I don’t so much have an occupation as a preoccupation, which is my mother, Rose”; and longs for existential transformation: “I want a bigger life. What I feel most is that I’m a failure.”
When the novel opens we find Rose and Sofia in an apartment in Almeria on the Spanish coast of Andalusia, where they have travelled to seek the counsel of the renowned but unorthodox physician, Dr Gomez. Rose has had to remortgage her home to fund the expedition, which, after spending years in the UK fruitlessly searching for a diagnosis of her condition, both she and her daughter regard as “the final journey” in their long quest for treatment and resolution.
While Rose is being treated by Dr Gomez, whose unusual approach to her malady involves encouraging her to make lists of her greatest enemies (she considers her parents her “first adversaries”) and taking her for long lunches in which she is exposed to things to which she believes she is allergic (octopuses; cats), Sofia uses the time she has to herself to pursue the bigger life she has been dreaming of. She swims in dangerous tides; gets stung by a Medusa jellyfish; is looked after by the lifeguard, Juan; comes to imagine herself responding to her mother’s illness as if she were the Medusa of Greek mythology: “If I were to look at my mother just once in a certain way, I would turn her to stone. Not her, literally. I would turn the language of allergies, dizziness, heart palpitations and waiting for side effects to stone. I would kill this language stone dead.” And she finds lovers who complicate, and prompt her to complicate, categories of gender and sexuality. Juan, the lifeguard, is “maternal, brotherly ... like a sister, perhaps paternal”; Ingrid she initially assumes to be a man because, when she encounters her in a public lavatory, the first thing she sees is her men’s shoes, visible under the wall between cubicles. These developments allow Rose and Sofia to live, and to think, more expansively, and Levy tells their dilatory stories with care, precision, exuberance and empathy. Dr Gomez is a wonderfully vivid, almost magical creation; Rose’s exasperating preoccupations, tenacious anxieties and relentless complaints are brought to life with a subtle combination of clear-sightedness and generosity.
But the great triumph of the novel is the figure of Sofia, from whose perspective the story is narrated. The voice in which Levy has her speak is resonant, fresh, inventive, and modulates appealingly from one register to another – at times dry and ironic (“His red badge displayed his name and job description, but it did not tell us his salary scale – probably somewhere in the region of dignified poverty”), at times amused and indulgent (“Gomez ... was not so much walking as promenading across the white marble floor towards us”), at times plainly and memorably lyrical (“They were eating figs. Purple dusty figs, the colour of twilight”). The novel that this language creates is a work of arresting imaginative compassion and edifying plenitude. It makes the inner lives of others feel bigger.
Matthew Adams lives in London and writes for the TLS, The Spectator and the Literary Review.
Sofia, in a state of arrested development from caring for her mother Rose, finds new freedoms in Spain.