What do we think of when we think of myths? For children, myths are something unquestionable and magical. They present a world removed from our own, a sacred place where Gods and Goddesses control the events of ordinary people’s lives, and heroes and villains fight the dramatic battles of good versus evil. For this reason, the word ‘myth’ usually conjures up a sense of fiction, a grandiose narrative about individuals far superior to us performing incredible feats. What we fail to remember that those same myths were a religion to the societies they originated from. With hindsight, the stories of Zeus and Mount Olympus may seem fantastic, yet they were regarded in the same way that the holy texts of contemporary religions are. Indeed, we have our own myths which form part of our everyday reality; inherited fictions which underpin our identity, and have grown out of arbitrary social structures. Our religions, political affiliations, views about gender and ideas about ourselves are all based on myth, narratives which we have grown up being told are ‘the truth’.
Hot Milk is a glimpse into the lives of Sofia Papastergadis and her mother, Rose, as their family drama is played out against the backdrop of Almeria in Spain, once one of the largest Muslim fortresses in the Mediterranean and now a popular tourist destination. They come to Spain so Rose can be treated by an eccentric specialist called Dr Gomez as she has a mysterious illness which affects her ability to walk. Sofia has terminated her PhD in anthropology (in which she was studying cultural memory) to look after her mother in their Hackney home, thus winding up working in an artisan coffee shop and feeling like she is in limbo. To add to this, the sudden trip to visit Dr Gomez throws Sofia’s identity into a permanent crisis.
As a scholar evidently influenced by post-structuralist thought, Sofia is continuously probing accepted truths around her and therefore destabilising her life and her environment; What is a myth? What is a sign? What is a sigh? She strives to deconstruct social myths and does not take anything as a given. This is indeed what Levy encourages us to do through the character of Sofia – to suspend our systematic beliefs and prejudices, to question the world around us as Sofia does. In particular, Levy makes us examine female sexuality and the nature of being a functioning woman in a modern society.
Sofia’s body is deeply imprinted with both personal and cultural memories which she cannot erase. Towards the end of the novel, after a heated disagreement with her mother, Sofia escapes the clinical confines of Almeria. Defiantly, she travels to Greece, where her father is living with his young wife and new-born baby, having abandoned Sofia’s mother in London when Sofia was a child. When she arrives in Greece, the birthplace of her estranged father, and therefore the origin of her own lost heritage, she reflects: ‘’Here I am in the birthplace of the Medusa, who left the scars of her venom and rage on my body’’. Indeed, Sofia’s body is literally covered in jellyfish stings (the word ‘Medusa’ being the Greek word for jellyfish( – the result of ignoring the red flags warning of jellyfish in the sea whilst swimming in Spain. Her body has also been metaphorically lacerated by the traumatic events in her life, especially the callous departure of her father, and his unwillingness to look after her and her mother.
This image of the Medusa recurs at Sofia’s most vulnerable moments throughout the novel. According to myth, the Medusa represents an antagonistic force; a mere gaze from her hideous physiognomy will turn a person to stone. Yet, as a trained anthropologist, Sofia is not deterred by the figure of Medusa (literal or mythic), but is interested in her full story, asking ‘I wonder what would be the Medusa’s case history?’ Medusa is, for Sofia, not to be dismissed as a monster, but a creature who we can try to understand. The accepted myth is just one interpretation of the Medusa’s true nature.
Hot Milk is haunted by the figure of Medusa; the spectre of a woman who has been punished for her femininity (turned into a monster by Athena who is jealous of her beauty) and is forced the bear the scars of her punishment. This idea resonates throughout the novel – the cruel sense of injustice and the problematic presence and effect of ‘woman’. It is the collective bodies of the women in the novel who suffer the most at the hands of men. This, however, hints at the broader problems which grow out of the mythologising of social structures.
Regardless of these entrenched structures, the female characters develop a language of their own between one another. Each is a powerful figure; an independent and forceful character, carrying their own story concerning their sexuality. With the epigraph taken from Heléne Cixous’ seminal essay The Laugh of the Medusa, Levy reminds us that Medusa is redeemed by Cixous from her persecuted identity. Calling for an emancipation of woman’s bodies, Cixous embraces a radical feminine language; a liberated, fluid form of expression. Levy’s language itself demonstrates this with a richly inter-textual style that oscillates between voices and memories, the subjective and the objective.
Reflecting this, Sofia cannot be defined by the structures around her. Her Occupation becomes ‘Monster’ when she is forced to state it in a perfunctory form for a lifeguard who takes care of her on the beach after she is stung by jellyfish. Her options are vast: is she a former PhD student turned nurse to her mother? Is she a waitress? She cannot write her whole story in one line and the easiest categorisation is to reduce herself to a ‘Monster’. Similarly with her mother, her illness cannot be rationally identified. Its abstract nature seems incomprehensible to the world but the true cause of her illness is perhaps psychosomatic. She has become paralysed by the tragedy which has overcome her life. Her bones are living tissue which carry the weight of her punishment: her husband who has left her, the daughter she was forced to raise alone who will ultimately also abandon her.
A sense of displacement lingers in this novel and Almeria itself becomes a strange refuge for damaged people, a vacation zone where ordinary rules do not exist, like Chekov’s Yalta. Common situations, assumptions and objectives take on a surreal quality – or perhaps even hyperreal – beneath the scorching Spanish sunlight. The foreign backdrop of Almeria is significant in this context. Sofia’s last name may refer to the anthropologist Nico Papastergadis who recently published a book entitled ‘The Turbulence of Migration’ which looks at the impact of migration on contemporary societies. Hot Milkreflects our globalised world – Sofia’s last name itself demonstrating the yoking of two distinct cultures which have produced a being who is removed from her paternal past. The result of globalisation is that language and myths blend in new ways to create new meanings, removed from their origins. There is no home in Hot Milk, no stable identity. Sofia and Rose experience irreversible change through their journey to Spain and the palimpsest of their identity expands further, warping and shifting beyond their original, recognisable forms.
‘If Anthropology is the study of humankind from its beginnings millions of years ago to today, I am not very good at studying myself’ muses Sofia late in the novel, after a sensuous encounter with Ingrid, her German lover. Indeed Hot Milkexplores this endless mystery of human individuality and the female body; its drives and impulses, its incomprehensibility, and one of its most mysterious natural functions: motherhood.
Nevertheless, Levy’s novel is more than a metaphor for the persistent nature of myth. It can also be read as a strongly personal story about human relationships and the discomfort of being a young woman in the 21st century. The stinging Medusas are not only symbolic; they are part of the dangerous, foreign landscape, which Sofia suddenly finds herself in where jellyfish are not the only threat. Perhaps the biggest hazard is Ingrid, who captures Sofia’s heart. Or perhaps the danger is closer to home: is it the ‘hot milk’ of motherhood, a natural, nourishing occurrence that through the time begins to scald as a child discovers independence from the unconditional love of their mother.
We live in a world full of myths constructed in the past; sexuality, success, education, the economic crisis and our families are all subject to these narratives. A myth has the power to convince people that signs (our names, genders, religious preferences) have inherent value: that a woman must be inherently feminine due to her sex. In Hot Milk, Sofia muses how ‘we are all getting in each other’s signs’ – woman become men, daughters becomes mothers, fathers become sons. She idolises her lover Ingrid, not for the reasons men are drawn to her objective womanliness: her tall body, blonde hair, large breasts. Sofia loves her for the way she fractures the myth of womanhood: Ingrid is strong, rebellious. The duality of her sexuality are expressed in Sofia’s observation that ‘the curves of her body are female but sometimes she sounds like Matthew’. Nothing is stable or solid in this strange land that Sofia is passing through. Myths do not exist – everything exists only in the moment, beautiful exactly for what it is. The Medusa is no longer a hideous creature – she is the protective symbol on Athena’s war shield. We are returned to the epigraph: it’s up to you to break the old circuits.
by Diana Kurakina
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, Hamish Hamilton, £12.99
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