Oh man it’s been a while I realise since I last wrote about books. I have been teaching lots, reading always, but also reading parent guides as research for writing a series of our own sex ed parent guides… But here is something of the fiction I’ve been reading lately:
- Hot Milk, Deborah Levy
- Swimming Home, Deborah Levy
- Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh
- Nutshell, Ian McEwan
I’m going to talk about each one over the next few Saturdays, starting with Hot Milk. How’s that for organised? Then I’m going to jam in some final India and subcontinent novels for my final wrap-up post in December, probably NYE to be honest.
I’m specifically going to look at the blurbs and cover quotations. I’m also looking at the opening paragraphs of each book because all these titles are very strong on the first page. The way they set up the voice, the situation, the promise of things to come, prodding the interest of the reader, I found very conscious and skillful but not heavy-handed. I liked both of the Levys a lot, and they are quite different. Hot Milk is more of a nebulous piece than the other (and it was also shortlisted for the Booker this year). It feels rammed-full of symbolic imagery and for much of the read I felt there was something underlying that I wasn’t getting. I liked the relationships between the characters, I liked the stilted interplays and I liked the location – somewhere in Spain, with beach and desert and sinister jellyfish called Medusa. It wasn’t predictable (always a huge plus) and at times was ambiguous, again something I am attracted to in fiction. But the ending? I can’t quite remember it.
‘Author of Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Swimming Home’
‘Deborah Levy transfixes the reader’ Daily Telegraph
Sofia and her mother, Rose, arrive on the Spanish coast seeking help. Rose is the victim of a biological conspiracy: her legs have stopped working and no one can tell her why. Both women are desperate for the truth – but awaiting them in Almeria are many more questions than answers.
Almeria is a place caught between the desert and the deep blue sea. It is a place of shifting mirages and ghostly jellyfish floating in the evening tide, watched over by the famous Dr Gomez and his glamorous assistant, Nurse Sunshine. Simmering with hope and longing, Sofia has come seeking solutions, but the answers she finds are always to questions she had not thought to ask.
Under the unblinking glare of the desert sun, mother and daughter strain at the ragged boundaries of their relationship, testing the bonds of kinship to breaking point. Intoxicating and compulsively readable, Hot Milk unspools a hypnotic tale of female rage and sexuality, of myths and timeless monsters.
Here are the opening few paragraphs:
2015. Almería. Southern Spain. August.
Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor of a bar built on the beach. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath (designed like an envelope), landing screen side down. The digital page is now shattered but at least it still works. My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else.
So what I am saying is that if it is broken, so am I.
My screen saver is an image of a purple night sky crowded with stars, and constellations and the Milky Way, which takes its name from the classical Latin lactea. My mother told me years ago that I must write Milky Way like this – γαλαζίας κύκλος – and that Aristotle gazed up at the milky circle in Chalcidice, thirty-four miles east of modern-day Thessaloniki, where my father was born. The oldest star is about 13 billion years old but the stars on my screen saver are two years old and were made in China. All this universe is now shattered.
There is nothing I can do about it. Apparently, there is a cybercafe in the next flyblown town and the man who owns it sometimes mends minor computer faults, but he’d have to send for a new screen and it will take a month to arrive. Will I still be here in a month? I don’t know. It depends on my sick mother, who is sleeping under a mosquito net in the next room. She will wake up and shout, ‘Get me water, Sofia,’and I will get her water and it will always be the wrong sort of water. I am not sure what water means any more but I will get her water as I understand it: from a bottle in the fridge, from a bottle that is not in the fridge, from the kettle in which the water has been boiled and left to cool. When I gaze at the star fields on my screen saver I often float out of time in the most peculiar way.
This opening tells me so much about character. The narrator is unusual and a bit isolated and dislocated in her thinking – and so is interesting. I’m sure it was Maria Hyland (Alex Miller? SOMEONE) who said a first person narrator has to be an extraordinary character to succeed, also for readers to want to spend so much time in intimate proximity. It also tells us about Rose, Sofia’s mother, and with a few short lines we know exactly the type of woman she is, and our sympathies are probably firmly with Sofia.
It’s a great read, has anyone else read it?
Next Saturday, Swimming Home, also by Deborah Levy.
EDIT: I’ve decided with each non-review I do, to post a link to a far superior proper review. Here’s one from Kill Your Darlings man Gerard Elson, his ‘Valentine’ to Hot Milk.