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Man Booker Prize 2016: Hot Milk

Johannesburg-born Brit Deborah Levy is no stranger to the Man Booker shortlist, having found her way there with 2013’s Swimming Home. Twice a shortlister and also bookies’ favourite, Hot Milk isn’t a bad way to celebrate her thirty-fifth year as a writer. It’s fair to say she’s found her place in the world.

Twenty-something Sofia Papastergiadis – ethnic mishmash, anthropology dropout, anxious barista – has not. Almeria, in southern Spain, she decides, is as good a place as any to do a bit of soul-searching, though not her primary reason for visiting: it is also the location of the small private hospital her mother is visiting, in the hope of finding the source of her myriad mysterious symptoms.

The setting is just one of the ways in which Levy betrays the semi-autobiographical nature of her writing – there is no doubt the author has spent time in Spain. At the same time Levy’s Almeria is not tiresomely authentic, thanks to a dash of the hallucinatory. With a relatively free schedule Sofia is free to act as a sponge, soaking up the culture of this small, sleepy, sun-soaked Spanish town, which in turn allows Levy free reign to enchant us with her masterly descriptive style that mixes reality with the dreamlike.

Likewise, Hot Milk resembles a dream in the plot’s lack of focus or clear structure. The thematic and narrative content is bare-bones to say the least. The focus of the novel may indeed be its protagonist’s lack of focus itself, which, while checking the box for realism once more, does not a gripping novel make. Visits to the charismatic doctor and a couple of casual sexual partners (one male, one female), make up the bulk of the plot. Levy must be commended for refreshingly introducing her protagonist’s bi-sexuality with heavy understatement, as though it is the most normal thing in the world, and not a defining characteristic, eccentricity or abnormality. While this is a very determined and inspired decision to steer clear of Bridget Jones or Fifty Shades territory, without anything to take the place of a fully-fleshed love plot, the novel is left lacking. Extremely cyclical, the recurring motifs and events become less meaningful and more frustrating as the pages go by.

Thus the workings of Sofia’s mind are our primary entertainment. And while it is an interesting mind – stupid little anxieties, the interaction between internal monologue and outward conversation – it is not always one that belongs in literature. Levy gives Sofia the habit of spotting meaning and symbolism in everything, effectively belittling the reader’s abilities of deduction, spoon-feeding us what should be left between the lines.

Hot Milk is a beautiful mirage of a work, hyper-realistic to a fault. Spending time with Sofia and her mother, by turns humorous, insightful and bittersweet, is a rewarding experience. Man Booker-worthy, though? Well, only time will tell.

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

Photo credit: April Vest

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