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

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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.

Cour­tesy Hous­ton­boy

Sofia, in a state of ar­rested de­vel­op­ment from car­ing for her mother Rose, finds new free­doms in Spain.

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