Some crises are sexier than others. People are inclined to ask about the Great 9/11 Novel or the Definitive Novel of the Arab Spring. They are less concerned about the Whimsical Fable of Greece’s Financial Insolvency.
Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk” is, somewhat unexpectedly, that fable.
The novel begins with Sofia and her mother, Rose, in a heat-blasted Spanish village. They are an English family on a medical pilgrimage, undertaken for Rose’s sake. She suffers from a smattering of imprecise symptoms: Her knuckles ache; her left arm stings when she sneezes; she cannot walk. She has taken out a loan on her house to visit a clinic, artfully sunk into the surrounding desert. There the eccentric Dr. Gómez offers an unexpected solution: Rose needs to get off her medications altogether.
“Waiting for new pain was the big adventure in her life,” Sofia reflects, and for a long time, the twists and turns of her mother’s illness have supplied the only adventure in hers. As Rose is weaned from her medicine, Sofia drifts through the village, struggling to understand what independence might mean in her own case. She doesn’t feel like she belongs to the working world — “the men in male suits” — but she doesn’t want to complete her degree in anthropology either. “A sense of purpose requires the subject to lose some things and gain others,” Sofia considers, “but I wasn’t sure it was worth it.”
For a writer as language-savvy as Levy, it can’t be a coincidence that Sofia’s name comes from the Greek word for wisdom. But the novel is less a quest for self-knowledge than a doubting ramble. As Sofia listens to reports of Greece’s collapse, she involves herself in a love triangle, learns to drive, steals a fish. Eventually, she flies to visit her deadbeat Greek dad and his childlike economist wife. Sofia thinks of herself as her father’s “confused and shabby creditor,” yet she leaves without having asked him for anything. As they part, he rummages through his pockets for bills, intending a charitable gesture. He’s got nothing.
It’s easy to mistake “Hot Milk” for a similarly empty-handed performance. But while the plot is shaggy, Levy’s language is precise. The absurdities of her style seem scattershot at first, but yield a larger pattern: a commentary on debt and personal responsibility, family ties and independence. “Hot Milk” isn’t the fable we asked for about the European financial crisis. But it’s the one we’ve got.
Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer and Chinese-English translator.
By Deborah Levy
Bloomsbury. 218 pp. $26