Skip to content

2016 Man Booker Prize: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

hot milk

Up next for our Man Booker shadow panel is Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. Four of our panelists read this book. Will it live up to our love for the last one? Keep reading to see what we thought and don’t forget to let us know what you thought too!

NOTE: Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing us all with review copies in exchange for our honest reviews.

Hot Milk
by Deborah Levy
Published in: 2016
Judges: Jen, Book Worm, Nicole, & Kate
Find it/buy it here: Hot Milk

Author Deborah Levy. Photo by Sheila Burnett

Author Deborah Levy. Photo by Sheila Burnett

Synopsis (from Amazon): I have been sleuthing my mother’s symptoms for as long as I can remember. If I see myself as an unwilling detective with a desire for justice, is her illness an unsolved crime? If so, who is the villain and who is the victim?

Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She is frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints, but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and her mother travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant–their very last chance–in the hope that he might cure her unpredictable limb paralysis.

But Dr. Gomez has strange methods that seem to have little to do with physical medicine, and as the treatment progresses, Sofia’s mother’s illness becomes increasingly baffling. Sofia’s role as detective–tracking her mother’s symptoms in an attempt to find the secret motivation for her pain–deepens as she discovers her own desires in this transient desert community.

Hot Milk is a profound exploration of the sting of sexuality, of unspoken female rage, of myth and modernity, the lure of hypochondria and big pharma, and, above all, the value of experimenting with life; of being curious, bewildered, and vitally alive to the world.

Jen’s Review: I loved this book! It’s hard for me to put into words exactly why I loved it so much but I was enthralled from the first paragraph. I found Levy’s writing to be dazzling. It was a mix of lush, beautiful prose, humor, and subtle emotion all put forth in a very relatable and unpretentious way. I felt like I was reading about a close friend and I was thoroughly engaged with Sophia’s story.

On the surface, the novel and plot seem fairly simplistic but it is actually a story of great depth and one filled with symbolism and metaphors. Imagery of jellyfish, the sea, broken vases, a chained dog, and a bizarre medical team all serve to add a layer of depth and complexity to the novel. The book is about identify, self-discovery, and breaking free from the narratives of our childhood. Whereas McGuire’s The North Water oozed masculinity, this book oozed femininity in all its forms and complexities. It was emotionally rich and centered around notions of both individuality and maintaing our sense of self in the context of our relationships with others. I found the use of symbolism and the narrative structure (with addition of small chapters/paragraphs interspersed throughout the primary narrative) to be different, clever, and beautifully poetic. So far, (this was book number 8 for me), this has been my favorite book on the longlist.

As an aside, I wanted to point out that this book is only one of three from the longlist that is written by a woman and focuses on a woman, other examples being Eileen & My Name is Lucy Barton. The major literary awards have been criticized for their lack of diversity when it comes to both gender (thus resulting in the creation of the Bailey’s Prize) and racial diversity. This year’s Man Booker longlist isn’t much of an exception. It’s a very white list and while it does include an equal number of women authors, only three books featured a woman as the lead protagonist. I don’t think gender of author or protagonist should be a consideration for merit of a book but I personally like to see a book like Hot Milk (and the other two) recognized on the list that is heavily dominated by the masculine narrative (North Water, His Bloody Project, All that Man is, Hystopia, etc).

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality: 4/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total 18/20

Book Worm’s Review Like Jen, I loved this book and it is also hard to put into words why I loved it. The writing is beautiful; the characters are engaging; the plot is full of symbolism, misunderstandings, relationships, and love.

I loved the Spanish setting as this allowed the characters to behave in ways that they would not have done had they been in their home town. It gave an almost unreal kind of quality to what was happening and this allowed some of the more bizarre actions to seem almost normal. It also gave me the chance to imagine myself on a Spanish beach enjoying the feel of the sand and the sea.

While quietly understated, the ending certainly packed an emotional punch for me.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality 4/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot development: 4/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total 18/20

Nicole’s Review: I found this book to be pure poetry.  The writing was clever, and beautiful and funny.  The characters were flawed and eccentric and infuriating.  The story was simple and complex.  I adored this book.

I was not blown away when I read Swimming Home, so this book was both a surprise and a treat.  And now I’m wondering if I missed something when I read it.  May be worth a re-read.  Highly recommended, but not for everyone – it’s light on plot but the deft wordplay more than made up for it.  I want to be Levy’s BFF.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality 4.5/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot development:  3.5/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total 19/20

Kate’s Review: This short novel has a mesmerizing dreamlike quality.  Though the bulk of the story consists of the inner thoughts of Sofia Papastergiadis, the reader is also acutely aware of the heat of the Spanish sun and the burning stings of the ubiquitous Mediterranean jellyfish. While we know virtually every thought that crosses Sophia’s mind as she accompanies her invalid mother Rose to the clinic of the enigmatic Dr. Gomez, the motivations of Rose and Gomez remain mysterious. The plot, centering around Rose’s illness and her last gasp treatment in the clinic, is secondary to the beautiful imagery as Sofia floats untethered through a pair of sexual liaisons and a disheartening encounter with her estranged father and his new family. My favorite moments were when she slipped back into her training as a cultural anthropologist and started to analyze her environment or acquaintances as if they were a research troop of rhesus monkeys. I’d have given Hot Milk full points for character development if I didn’t feel that the secondary characters were more static than Sofia. The ending packed an unexpected punch but I think I’ll remember the barking dog and the languid beach scenes for longer.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality 4/5
Character development: 3.5/4
Plot development 2.5/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total 17/20

Average score across all panelists: 18/20

Ranking of Longlist books to date:
1. Work Like Any Other (18/20)
2. Hot Milk (18/20)
3. The Sellout (17/20)
4. My Name is Lucy Barton (16.13/20)
5. The North Water (13.5/20)
6. Eileen (12.5/20)
.

Want to try it for yourself? You can buy your copy here: Hot Milk

We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you plan on reading this book? Does it deserve to make the Man Booker Shortlist?

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. reading the reviews makes me want to read the book again. Love!

    Liked by 1 person

    August 25, 2016
    • mootastic1 #

      Makes me happy I requested it as soon as you said to read thus book first when we were discussing Swimming Home.

      Liked by 1 person

      August 25, 2016
  2. Tracy S #

    I’m looking forward to this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    August 25, 2016
  3. I’m glad to see your reviews because I don’t feel much of a draw just from the synopsis, but it sounds like I really should try it.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 25, 2016
    • I’m glad they are helpful! I think this is one you will enjoy but not 100% sure.

      Like

      August 25, 2016
  4. Scoto #

    This uneven novel begins with 70 pages of characters who are one-dimensional, immature or just plain weird. Images and symbols galore give the literary reader a reason to think Levy will eventually be profound. And she is, eventually. The next 70 pages is more interesting than the first, punctuated by long stream-of-conscious paragraphs of her family life, past and present. They are brilliant. An unexplained fit of anger inspires our heroine, Sophia, to leave her sick mother in Spain to visit her father in Greece. What? Whatever. This brief visit is the best part of the novel. These 30 pages incorporate religion, politics, economy, family dynamics, and language. It could be a short story itself, an ingenious one. I wanted Sophia to stay there.
    But, alas, she returns to the situations in Spain, some of which have changed, others not. The main characters become fleshed-out in a number of tedious sub-plots but, for me, it was too late. These characters became houseguests who overstayed their welcome. Overall, this short novel seemed much longer because its’ seemingly heartfelt intentions are either contrived or ingenuous, but there is so much good writing here that Levy manages to wrap it all up in an uncertain but heartwarming conclusion. Literary to a fault, I have no doubt this novel will make the shortlist.

    Like

    August 27, 2016
  5. Scott #

    This uneven novel begins with 70 pages of characters who are one-dimensional, immature or just plain weird. Images and symbols galore give the literary reader a reason to think Levy will eventually be profound. And she is, eventually. The next 70 pages is more interesting than the first, punctuated by long stream-of-conscious paragraphs of her family life, past and present. They are brilliant. An unexplained fit of anger inspires our heroine, Sophia, to leave her sick mother in Spain to visit her father in Greece. What? Whatever. This brief visit is the best part of the novel. These 30 pages incorporate religion, politics, economy, family dynamics, and language. It could be a short story itself, an ingenious one. I wanted Sophia to stay there.
    But, alas, she returns to the situations in Spain, some of which have changed, others not. The main characters become fleshed-out in a number of tedious sub-plots but, for me, it was too late. These characters became houseguests who have overstayed their welcome. Overall, this short novel seemed much longer because its’ seemingly heartfelt intentions are either contrived or ingenuous, but there is so much good writing here that Levy manages to wrap it all up in an uncertain but heartwarming conclusion. Literary to a fault, I have no doubt this novel will make the shortlist.

    Like

    August 27, 2016
    • I have been thinking about how best to respond to you comment because I couldn’t disagree more and I’ve been trying to come up with an eloquent way of explaining my own thoughts about the book. I didn’t find the characters one-dimensional or immature at all and in fact for me the opposite was true. I recently read a review by a friend of mine on GoodReads and she raised some of the things I had been thinking about this book. I’m quoting from her review here, “This novel is all woman. It tells the story that only a woman can, in a language that women will understand. This does not mean a man cannot also learn something from it, but for far too long women’s stories have been told by men, and sometimes we need something of our own. This book gives us that.”

      I’ve seen several negative reviews of this book and the majority of them have been written by men. I also find it interesting that your favorite so far has been the North Water (which I also liked) which I found to be very stereotypically masculine in tone and content (bold, aggressive, action-oriented, etc) and emotionally hard for me to connect with. Hot Milk is clearly at the other end of the spectrum from The North Water. I wonder if there is something very gendered about how we enjoy these types of books? I personally really connected with the main character and found her to be very well-developed from the outset and one of the best books I’ve read in terms of capturing some of the ways in which many women often think and feel. Sure some of the plot was odd, dreamlike, and not genuine but the inner lives and experiences (to me) felt so on point that I wondered if the author was inside my head (and I have a great relationship with my mother who is not in the least bit hypochondriacally-oriented). It wasn’t the plot that made this profound, it was the way the author used the plot as a framework for discussing inner experiences – often times through the use of symbolism. Finally, I find it interesting that you were most engaged in the parts that took place in Greece. To me, that was the least interesting part (although I still liked it). This section is probably the most action-oriented rather than inner-focused. Anyway, I wonder if this is one of those books that will generate very different reactions from men and women readers. I only wish our male reviewer, Andrew had read this too. What you found contrived, I found to be incredibly genuine. What you found to be an unexplained fit of anger, I found to be very understandable –coming from a place of having to keep personal needs and anger in check in order to meet the needs of others. And while I don’t say this about many books, I wonder how much of our experience of this particular book had to do with our genders. Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts on the book. I had the opposite experience of the book but I enjoyed reading your comments and thinking about why we differed so much in our views on this particular book.

      Liked by 2 people

      September 1, 2016
      • Scott #

        I enjoyed your passionate reply. I simply didn’t warm-up to the heroine, and her friend Ingrid was one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever read. Dr. Gomez and his daughter were more comical than sincere, but I thought it interesting when the daughter stepped on the roach and just left it on the floor. I wanted Sofia’s mother to be more selfish, needy and aggravating; creating more of a genuine challenge for Sofia. But, overall, the mother seemed fairly independent considering the situation and locale and, for a traumatized daughter dealing with her mother’s mortality, Sofia seemed to be having a pretty good time. The most surprising aspect of your note was your opinion of the Greek trip. We just disagree here. For me, the characters in this section were far more interesting than the Spanish contingent. Perhaps, upon reflection, it was Levy’s intention. Maybe this brief distraction was intended to be an unwelcome interlude of realism? But I digress.

        Your observations on sexuality differences certainly have merit and I don’t doubt that some readers may have their favors or prejudices, but I would hope my opinions of these books are objective and translate into being more about sensibility than sex.

        I look forward to posting in the future as well as receiving your insightful feedback.

        Liked by 1 person

        September 2, 2016
      • interesting. I did like the Greek trip I just found it less interesting than the other parts. It was certainly an interesting contrast and I think you’re right in that it was Levy’s intention. And regarding sex/gender differences, I don’t mean to suggest that it all comes down to that. I think that would be an overly simplistic interpretation and certainly your comments and feelings (and mine) about the book go beyond just a the fact that we are reading it as men and women. I do wonder however, how much of our initial reaction to this particular book comes from identifying with a specific piece due to our gendered experiences. Interestingly, I just finished All That Man Is and disliked it. It is a series of short stories about men of different generations/ages. I felt like I couldn’t really connect with the characters at all. Have you read it yet? I would be curious to see how you like it. Honestly, I
        found his portrayal of men and masculinity to be rather simplistic but I’d be curious for your thoughts. I hope you read it.

        Like

        September 3, 2016
      • Scott #

        Well said, Jen, and I also often wonder how much of our initial reaction to anything comes from gender identification. Volumes have been written on this subject, as I’m sure you know. On a lighter note, “All The Man Is” will be published here (USA) in mid-October. I’m currently in the middle of “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” and unless it takes a downward spiral, it’s the best book by far that I’ve read from the Booker longlist.

        Liked by 1 person

        September 3, 2016
      • Yes! That is my pick to win it all. Although I still have the Coetzee book left which I just started.

        Like

        September 3, 2016
  6. Your review, but especially your last comment, has convinced me to give this book a try. Nothing I’ve read before has tempted me to read it, but you make it sound awesome!! And the questions you ask about how different genders react differently to books is so interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    September 2, 2016
    • You should read it then let us know which side of the debate you fall on!

      Liked by 1 person

      September 3, 2016
  7. Anita Pomerantz #

    Just finished this one – – and have to say – – LOVED it!!! This book is going to be hard to love if you aren’t a daughter in my opinion . . .meaning, I have a very hard time seeing many men liking anything about it – – the writing style, the subject matter, none of it. But as a child of divorce, all I can say is, I thought this book did a terrific job of portraying the impact of divorce, specifically on daughters . . .addressing all the issues including parental selfishness, the guilt of the child, and the loss of identity. I wouldn’t recommend this to all readers, but there are some people that I will be thrusting this into their hands . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    September 25, 2016

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. 2016 Man Booker: Hystopia by David Means | The Reader's Room
  2. 2016 Man Booker: The Many by Wyl Menmuir | The Reader's Room
  3. 2016 Man Booker: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet | The Reader's Room
  4. 2016 Man Booker: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien | The Reader's Room
  5. 2016 Man Booker: Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy | The Reader's Room
  6. 2016 Man Booker: All That Man Is by David Szalay | The Reader's Room
  7. 2016 Man Booker: The Schooldays of Jesus by Coetzee | The Reader's Room
  8. 2016 Man Booker Shortlist: Our Predictions | The Reader's Room
  9. 2016 Man Booker Shortlist | The Reader's Room
  10. 2016 Man Booker Shortlist: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy | The Reader's Room

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: