Book Review: Hot Milk

Deborah Levy is an author I have wanted to try for a long time, I heard about Hot Milk from listening to a Penguin Books podcast. It was one of those books that I wanted to last for as long as possible. I was disappointed when it ended but immediately felt I could read it again! Not many books do that, so I figured it must be something special.

Synopsis from Goodreads

“Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She’s frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and Rose travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant, Dr. Gomez—their very last chance—in the hope that he might cure Rose’s unpredictable limb paralysis, but Dr. Gomez has strange methods that seem to have little to do with physical medicine, and as the treatment progresses, Rose’s illness becomes increasingly baffling…”

Review

Title: Hot Milk

Author: Deborah Levy

Genres: Fiction, literary fiction

My rating:  ★★★★★ 

Do not be under any illusions, this is a simple story at first glance, but one which will leave an impact forever. The plot is neat and unassuming, told by a young anthropology graduate as she takes her mother to Spain in search for treatments to cure her various ailments.

Sofia, who is half Greek, half English, for me was an instantly likable protagonist. She’s 25, struggling to know what to do with her life and feels guilty for telling superiors she works in a Coffee House, sleeping above the storage room. She has little savings and a first class degree she doesn’t know what to do with. However, the way she sees the world and the way Levy describes it was enough to take my breath away. Whether it’s the influence of an anthropological background or just the way her mind works, Sofia sees the beautify in everyday life and her surroundings.

Partly, in going to Spain with her mother, Rose, Sofia is prolonging the realities of getting her life started. In between intense, romantic affairs, she has a yearning to complete her academic career but at the same time, likes to blissfully float through life.

“All summer, I had been moon-walking in the digital Milky Way. It’s calm there. But I am not calm. My mind is like the edge of their faintly glowing paths running across the screen, I have been making footprints in the dust and glitter of the virtual universe. It never occurred to me that, like the medusa, technology stares back and that its gaze might have petrified me, made me fearful to come down, down to Earth, where all the hard stuff happens, down to the check-out tills and the barcodes and the too many words for profit and the not enough words for pain.”

p.216

Sofia has always put her life on the line to help her mother, who she is practically a full time career for. She has abandoned her PhD and is living her life aimlessly. The novel begins with the smashing of her beloved laptop screen, which she tells readers, has the entirety of her life on it. Her mother frequently criticizes her and fails to see her merits, thus their relationship is fraught and laced with tension.

Levy creates an inversion of the typical mother-daughter relationship, as Sofia is the mother, caring and nurturing, and Rose abandons her daughter in more ways than one. It’s a portrayal of the mother-daughter bond, but unlike many others.

The title, Hot Milk, feels like it is drawing upon this “interior life” (Erica Wagner, The Guardian, 2016) of that relationship. ‘Hot Milk’ may be symbolic of the life force bond as breast milk (often hot) is the nurturer of new life and physical connection between mother and daughter. However, it could also relate to Sofia’s life as a barista, importantly, when foaming milk to make artisan coffee, the milk must be “hot” but never boiling – as this will create acidity, ruining the taste of the coffee. Hot milk therefore, could be symbolic of the importance of clarity – be that in relationships, life or other meanings. Furthermore, breast feeding is continually depicted with Sofia’s step mother feeding her sister, it feels apt that Levy draws upon these images to make poignant anecdotes on the mother-daughter relationship.

Another key bit of symbolism are the use of the ‘medusa’s’ – the local term for jellyfish. Sofia likes to frequent the sea near their rented apartment and often gets stung by jellyfish – she does this so often that she actually takes the life guard who treats these stings, for a lover. The significance of drawing upon the medusa didn’t come to me at first, but now it seems more significant. The medusa stings are likely to represent her fraught relationship with her mother, as the stings are something she endures again and again, eventually barely feeling any pain. We always tend to do more for those we love, even if they hurt us, don’t we?

Additionally, Rose’s condition eventually eats Sofia alive as she realises she cannot permanently put her life on hold, the frequent stings are a reminder of this power her mother has over her and the pain she has inflicted. Finally, there is also the sexual element, her stings are drawn upon as being a point of pleasure in sexual encounters. The sting in itself, could represent the sudden pang of sexual desire.

Levy creates a prose which is poetic and will change the way you view your own surroundings long after reading the final page. It makes the reading experience effortless and lyrical – in some passages, it reads like pure poetry.

This book had everything I could possibly want in a reading experience. The prose is beautiful, the protagonist intriguing, and the story simple yet alluring. It deals with a number of themes but essentially feels like a coming of age novel. It’s above all, a story that documents an individual’s self discovery and a, “powerful novel of interior life,” the reader truly becomes a fly on the wall in Sofia’s small, but intricate world.

Every so often everyone comes across a special book which has a lingering impact on them – and for me, this is one of those. During the reading process, I felt the density and beauty of the language sink into me as I became invested in Sofia’s life. The description made me want to see life in a different way and appreciate my surroundings with new vigor. I feel like Levy could make even a blank wall seem appealing!

Hours after finishing, I could still feel the novel’s presence, it made the perception of my own world more acute, and I found myself evaluating how everyday things truly look. I feel like this novel and its impact will always be at the back of my subconscious, luring me in and waiting to be read again.

My favourite quote: “I am overflowing like coffee leaking from a paper cup. I wonder, shall I make myself smaller? Do I have enough space on Earth to make myself less?” (p.202)

Book Review: The Bridge of Little Jeremy

The Bridge of Little Jeremy is a multifaceted, charming, literary fiction must read. I was drawn in by the setting of beautiful Paris, and the love of art the novel immediately conveys through its lyrical descriptions of life in the city. It is a story told through the unique insight of a twelve year old boy and his relationship with his best friend, Leon – a German shepherd. Intertwined with everyday musings about the city of Paris, is a story about a boy who tries to save his mother from financial ruin. It’s endearing, poignant, beautiful and will break your heart.

Please note – I was sent a copy of this book, but have not been paid to say any of the following. Everything is my own opinion.

Synopsis from Goodreads

“Jeremy’s mother is about to go to prison for their debt to the State. He is trying everything within his means to save her, but his options are running out fast.

Then Jeremy discovers a treasure under Paris.

This discovery may save his mother, but it doesn’t come for free. And he has to ride over several obstacles for his plan to work.

Meanwhile, something else is limiting his time…”

Review

Title: The Bridge of Little Jeremy

Author: Indrajit Garai

Genres: Fiction, literary fiction

My rating: ★★★★

What I loved the most about this book was that it took me by surprise.  I was so invested in the story and the main character Jeremy, navigating his days through Paris with his best friend, Leon. The story is completely told through the perspective of Jeremy, who lives with a severe heart condition. As readers, we learn more about his condition as the story goes on.

The book is told through first person narration, so the reader sees everything through the eyes and ears of Jeremy. I haven’t read many books which are narrated by such young protagonists, before reading this book I was hesitant, as in the past I haven’t enjoyed these perspectives, however this really surprised me. Jeremy is wise beyond his years, has an eye for the most beautiful things in life and thinks about things deeply. Naturally, I got along with his persona. His personality inevitably leaves the reader fully wishing for him to get a happy ending – as he is kind, resilient, talented, hardworking and has an eye for seeing and capturing the beauty around him. 

Jeremy wants to do all that he can to help his Mum out of financial ruin so they do not get their flat taken away from them. When he discovers an ancient painting in the cellar of their flat, he takes it upon himself to find out the history of the painting and restore it himself, so that he can make money for his Mum. During this journey, Jeremy provides us with beautiful descriptions of Paris during his daily walks with Leon. He truly sees the world in brushstrokes, colour, depth and shape, which mirrors his talent for painting. I frequently forgot Jeremy was only twelve – it was such a unique perspective for me to read and I really enjoyed viewing life through his eyes. The reader, like Jeremy himself, often forgets that his life is a very fragile one, Jeremy fears having the next heart operation, but tries to live every day the best he can.

Additionally, I enjoyed the prose in this book. Jeremy’s observations about life and scenes in Paris are told through dreamy, lyrical and descriptive language that has the ability to take you away from the present. It is a story about art and the power of beauty, that is utterly mirrored by its own use of language. As a result of this, I found myself finding the reading process incredibly relaxing and soothing to read. I’ve never really experienced this from reading a book before, but there was something about Jeremy’s daily walks with Leon, exploring the same scenes and documenting it so visually, that calmed me in a time where I’ve been feeling so much unease.

The story itself is a work of art as it has so many layers. It may be a story fundamentally, about saving a piece of art to save a family, but it contains so many other facets. There is an element of suspense throughout, as the reader cannot predict whether Jeremy will be successful in restoring the painting and whether his health will improve. The financial situation for his Mother seems to worsen day by day, despite her working so much overtime. But will the two of them get to keep the family home they so know and love? Can a painting save their future? 

There are other themes explored such as the importance of family, friends and a prevailing sense of achieving social justice which runs through the book. Jeremy is motivated to help his Mum on a personal level but also because he thinks it’s wrong that she could have her home taken away from her, even through it was inherited through the family. For a twelve year old, Jeremy certainly has an awareness of social justice in the adult world. Above all, it is a story that values a love and appreciation of art, how it can transcend decades and take us to other places. It stresses the importance of imagination and our ability to see the beauty in the everyday, before it’s too late. The novel is complex, engaging and full of suspense – I loved reading it to see how it would unfold. 

However, the ending was not what I had hoped for. I found it slightly abrupt and unfulfilling. Considering the rest of the story is so complex and well told, I found the ending to lack the closure it deserved. It is the only part of the story I felt was underdeveloped but maybe I am just being selfish in my criticisms as it wasn’t the ending I would have written. . Nevertheless, these are merely my personal, petty criticisms. We can’t always get the ending we want… Perhaps that’s the point here?

All in all, this is a beautiful story and reading experience that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone. I thoroughly appreciated the perspective of a twelve year old boy telling the story and the experience of becoming his eyes and ears, as he navigates Paris and attempts to bring an ancient painting back to life.

There are so many elements of sadness in the story, but these are always combined with plentiful beauty, as to remind us that there is always light, even when we may be surrounded by darkness.

“Yet life never comes in pure black and white. On the contrary, life always comes in patches of ambiguities, as on an impressionist painting; but, among its lights and shadows, you can add details from your imagination then interpret the result the way you like.”

The Bridge of Little Jeremy is available via Amazon.

Book Review: Call Me By Your Name

Title: Call Me By Your Name

Author: Andre Aciman

Genre: Literary fiction, LGBT, Romance

My rating: ★★★★

This book has been recommended to me more than once, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Granted, it is a bit out of my comfort zone, however I felt myself pulled into the dreamy prose and the featuring of a timeless, hot summer in Italy.

Synopsis

Seventeen year old Oliver lives in the Italian Riviera. In one hot and heavy summer, he falls in love with one of his parents’ guests. His father hosts people every year and Oliver is used to the ritual, but nothing prepared him for this.

In the initial stages, Oliver tries to keep his attraction below the surface. He experiences all the emotions in the space of a few weeks, and battles with the inner fears of first love, lust and rejection.

However – passion is always hard to subdue. Oliver eventually makes his feelings known and what is to follow is a steamy romance, laced with endless intimacy. Oliver is constantly battling between what he fears is right or wrong. Their relationship is kept from all that know them and they sneak around to express their deepest love for one another.

The romance only lasts six weeks, but the impact lasts a life time. Wrought with narration about the human condition, this novel tackles the intricacies of passion and what it takes to feel.

Review

  • I was inherently drawn to the prose in this book, it is written entirely through the perspective of Oliver in monologue style. The writing is dense, descriptive and beautiful and I felt myself escape in it. Although I can see this won’t be for everyone.
  • It deals with some important issues – such as discovering sexuality, how to express this and what goes on in the mind of someone as they experience love for the first time. But this isn’t the usual perspective featured in mainstream literature – as it features a relationship blossoming between men.
  • Sadly, Oliver feels like he has to hide his sexuality and often feels trapped in a cycle of guilt about his feelings.
  • I had a slight problem with the portrayal of love – it seems to conjure up something that overrides self appreciation. Oliver almost loses his self worth when falling in love as he places all value in another person. I understand this is meant to portray the feeling of falling in love for the first time, but I thought it was somewhat over the top in some instances. (e.g the peach scene, which I won’t reveal for the sake of spoilers)
  • I think there’s a lot about this novel I don’t understand and that’s why I had some problems with fully appreciating it. (I didn’t really get the ‘Call Me By Your Name’ part and the nicknames, but maybe I missed something important…) ?
  • However – I felt that this novel has an utterly trans-formative capacity. For me, it got more poignant with the pace of time and as Oliver grew older. It illustrates the human impact of lost time, chances and lost love.
  • When I finished the book, I felt touched in some way – and that Andre Aciman had a reached a part of me that has never been felt before. But at the same time, I was left not knowing what exactly.
  • For me, the book’s success is in its poignant ending, revealing an enduring type of love that lasts a life time of waiting.