Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

“I used to say to my classes that the ways to get insight are: to study infants; to study animals; to study primitive people; to be psychoanalyzed; to have a religious conversion and get over it; to have a psychotic episode and get over it.”

Margaret Mead

4/5 stars

In college I felt I kind of ended up an ‘accidental’ anthropologist–my alma mater required a certain number of credits in social sciences, and without knowing much about the subject, I enrolled in an introductory Anthropology course, and I ended up loving the subject, taking a few more courses throughout my time at Kenyon. It ended up informing a lot of my final-year dissertation project and remains a really interesting subject. The observation of humans can result in some fascinating stories, as Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk proves.

Hot Milk focuses on Sofia, a young anthropologist-turned-barista (referencing the titular hot milk) forced to give up her studies to care for her sick mother. She and her mother have come to a shady clinic in Southern Spain to treat her mother’s mysterious leg pain–probably run by a quack, but no one can be certain. Sofia spends her days tending to her mother and observing the people around her, using her anthropological training to inform her insights about this Spanish community in the wake of economic turmoil. She becomes entranced by a seamstress, Ingrid, who lives nearby, and the interactions with locals and expats pepper Sofia’s experience, informed by her identity as a British-Greek woman out of touch with her Greek roots and her Yorkshire ones.

This is a very introspective, character-driven book, informed by Sofia’s studies and her journey from Spain to Greece and back again. The atmosphere is slow and steamy, informed by the Mediterranean destinations featured throughout the book, and if you’re craving a holiday (who isn’t?), this book is a good substitute. If you want something more plot-driven, however, this book is pretty scant on it–beyond Sofia’s mother’s hypochondria and Sofia’s father marrying a woman Sofia’s age, there’s pretty limited conflict here. But Sofia’s observations of the world around her and her inner turmoil over abandoning her Anthropology PhD remain at the forefront of this story, with lots to say about quarter-life crises, sexuality, and national identity in the leadup to Brexit. Like a lot of recent Booker nominations, this is more of a ruminating book, with Sofia circling around and around to her favourite Margaret Mead quote above, unsure of a way forward into getting insight into her own life. It can be a frustrating read at times, but then again, these are frustrating times–and sometimes the only way out of a crisis is to attempt to make scientific sense of it.


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