‘Monstrous Heat: a Review of Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk’, by Madeleine Laing


Sofia Papastergiadis needs to learn to be bolder. Sofia Papastergiadis is a twenty-five-year-old barista and anthropology Ph.D. dropout cowed by her demanding, mysteriously crippled mother Rose. She has moved with Rose from London to Almeria, a stiflingly hot town on the Spanish coast, to consult eccentric orthopaedist Doctor Gomez. One day, while treating her mother, Doctor Gomez advises Sofia to steal a fish from the market to improve her boldness. When she does, she awakens a thirst for pleasure that pushes her out of the shadow of her mother’s cruel helplessness.

Madeleine Laing needs to learn to be bolder. Madeleine Laing is a twenty-three-year-old bookseller from Brisbane whose girlish desire causes her so much anxiety sometimes she can’t talk or look anyone in the eye. I’m going to stop writing in third person now. Sometimes I can’t talk or look anyone in the eye. With my writing I am sometimes bold. This year I released a zine into the world that had a two thousand word essay on how rough sex helped me recover from an eating disorder and felt mmmmm…nothing about it. Sometimes I read stories about fucking aloud in front of dozens of people and feel a deep down thrill. But when anyone asks me what I seriously think or feel about anything, or sometimes even how I am, my heart races and I feel sick to my stomach. I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t want to think about it. How I am. I can’t even put avocados through as onions at the self-serve checkout. I could not steal a fish.

In the epigraph of Hot Milk, Levy quotes from French feminist literary critic Helen Cixous’s book The Laugh of the Medusa. In that book Cixous talks about the power in women’s writing, and how it scares men because it comes from the body, to which men are much less connected. Obviously now we are realising the physiological differences between men and women are not at all binary or straightforward, but to be a woman often still means to think more about your body and the way it is perceived, and this consciousness is seen in all mediums of women’s art. The myth of the medusa and the monstrous feminine and Cixous’ text are all over Hot Milk. The jellyfish that infest the waters around Almeria are called medusas; Sofia’s lover Ingrid embroiders a top with the word “beheaded”, in an effort to cut off Sofia’s power over her. Sofia notes: “She wanted to behead her desire for me. Her own desire felt monstrous to her. She had made me the monster she felt herself to be.” But what me and you and Cixous know is that desire and its power doesn’t come from the head.

Doctor Gomez tells Sofia it looks like “her tongue is simmering inside her mouth”, like it is an organ that has something to say but a brain won’t let it. When he takes Sofia and her mother out to lunch he forbids Sofia to speak. This is Gomez’s attempt to let Rose speak for herself and Sofia finds it a relief. Throughout the book Sofia speaks much more with her body than her words; her tanned hips spill out over the top of her jeans, her nipples are dark on her full breasts, her armpits unshaved. She takes two lovers, a man and a woman, and thinks often of their bodies: Ingrid’s strong long legs and golden hair, Juan’s long graceful neck and kind face. The first time she is stung by a medusa jellyfish, her bikini top comes undone and her breasts spill out and remained bared without her noticing for the entire first scene of the book. She is simmering with the lid on but her body gives her away. Her body is bold even before she steals the fish.

My body is bold in a different way. My breasts are small with nipples as new and pink as when they first arrived. Veins run visibly under the soft pale skin of my thighs. I exercise and moisturise my body into leanness and smoothness every day for men who do nothing but wake up young and handsome. When I am with someone beautiful, I don’t let myself think or say anything that might give myself away, but with my body I am saying yes please and suddenly we’re kissing on a bridge and I’m laughing hysterically inside my head thinking how on earth did this happen and his hands are under my shirt and grabbing hard on my arse and his mouth is on my neck and I hold the back of his perfect head and look over his shoulder at the lights of the city.

Or my body takes us to his bed after a party and acts with an urgency I can’t make words for. We are holding each other so hard, with so much need, that we can barely break apart long enough to take our clothes off, barely kiss from touching. In the book we get to see Sofia and her partners only before or after sex, which distances the reader from Sofia’s experience. Juan she actively seduces, thinking “he was my lover and I was his conqueror”, but with the angry and aloof Ingrid she simply seems to fall into a relationship, feeling drawn to her but not knowing why: “meeting Ingrid is an assignment that had been scheduled without either of us writing it down.” After they kiss for the first she feels released, “I knew I had held myself in for too long, in my body, in my skin”; but not yet bold enough to stay and deal with the feelings she gets up and walks away.

I know this urge – often after sex, after the boldness of my body leaves me, I am nervous and small again, shrinking against the bed thinking things like, “tell him that sometimes you think he’s the only good man in the world and that you just want to make him happy forever – no don’t say that you dumb bitch ah, tell him that this can’t be anything but also you think he’s beautiful and you like spending time with him. NO! Just ah, tell him he’s cool! Say something you fucking MORON.” But I say nothing.

Sofia, like me, was raised primarily by a single mother. Women who have the luxury of being childless by choice must at some stage confront the sacrifice of their mothers. In Almeria, Sofia is financially dependent on Rose. She has been so for most of her life because although rich, her estranged father in Athens has never sent them any money. Sofia’s father left them when she was five, forcing highly-educated Rose to get a small-town librarian job. Sofia thinks about how Rose could have left her when her father did, dropped her with her Yorkshire grandmother and travelled the world: “she has done things that are not to her advantage and I am chained to her sacrifice, mortified by it.”

I am close with my mother, we talk and see each other almost every day but at periods of my life the sacrifice has been stifling. I grew up hearing spectacular stories of living in New York in the eighties, the people and the music and the parties, before she came back to Australia to visit and accidentally got pregnant with me and started a life that’s been often difficult and thankless. We’ve never really fought—I have always implicitly felt this sacrifice and been endlessly grateful for it—but I went through a period where I subtly tried to get her to admit that she regretted having me. I would say, “Don’t you wish you could have lived in another country again?” “Do you think you would have gone back to uni in America?” I wanted to understand what drove her to great acts of emotional and financial generosity followed by on-a-dime meanness (which, I now know, is a classic symptom of stress). I wanted to justify the guilt I felt about sapping her time and resources, while also not understanding why I had to feel this way. As all the petulant teenagers say, I didn’t ask to be born.

Unlike me and Sofia, Rose’s body does not tell the truth, to her or to the doctors. Sometimes she can walk, sometimes she can’t. Like so many mothers and daughters, Rose is restricted where Sofia is free. Rose’s resentment of this freedom makes her demanding and cruel. Spitefully, she makes plans to have her feet amputated so there will be no hope of recovery, no hope of Sofia ever being unburdened. In the end Sofia is forced to do something drastic, making Rose decide if she really wants to live or die.

The heat of Hot Milk’s setting first appears stifling and oppressive – the characters are right next to the cool of the ocean but it is full of monsters. However, through unapologetic melodrama, heavy symbolism, and delightful unsubtlety, this heat becomes cleansing, the sweat releasing the character’s desire, opening the mind through the body.

It is starting to get hot in Brisbane. The mornings are still fresh and the warmth of the sun still feels pleasant on your skin but it won’t be long until the humidity traps us all. Sweat will run down the back of my legs ceaselessly and soak into the couch while I lie in front of the fan in shorts and a bra. I will show my body in crop tops and short skirts, hoping that from under this layer of sweat it can still talk for me, talk to other bodies about desire in a way that’s not needy. Hoping that it’ll be convincing enough to leave my brain and my tongue to simmer inside me for another long summer.

Madeleine Laing is a bookseller and non-fiction writer from Brisbane. She is the co-editor of music blog whothehell.net, has been published in Scum and Spook magazines, and is a regular contributor to Broadsheet Brisbane and Strine Whine. She writes about food and cooking at goodfoob.com. Earlier this year she released a zine about food and sex called Eat Shit / Get Fucked.