Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016, takes its protagonist, 25-year-old Sofia Papastergidias, through a summer of self-transformation on the sun-baked Almería coast in Spain. Appropriate August reading, I thought, and it was. But the novel also presented me with a richly refreshing take on what a shyness narrative can look like in the twenty-first century. So far, the nineteenth-century French texts coming to form my corpus have most to say about what it is for men to be shy. But Hot Milk, a novelistic rewriting of Hélène Cixous’s feminist call-to-arms ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1975), and concerned, above all, with relationships between women (maternal, sisterly, friendly, sexual), takes Sofia’s timidity as its topic.
Shyness isn’t the only way to characterise Sofia, of course: her tangled discontent has just as much to do with her abandoned PhD in Anthropology, her unrewarding job in a London coffee shop, and her troubled relationship with her troubled mother, Rose. In Almería to see an orthopaedic consultant (who might or might not be a quack), mother and daughter are preoccupied with Rose’s inexplicable inability to walk. Yet Rose’s unidentifiable illness merges with Sofia’s murky malaise, as the doctor, Gόmez, notices: ‘If you don’t mind me saying, Sofia Irina, you are a little weak for a young healthy woman. Sometimes you limp, as if you have picked up on your mother’s emotional weather’ (p. 58). In perfect health and yet still not well, Sofia both needs a diagnosis from the doctor, and does not. Gόmez continues: ‘“I do not believe you need to do more exercise. It is a matter of having purpose, less apathy. Why not steal a fish from the market to make you bolder? It need not be the biggest fish, but it must not be the smallest either.” “Why do I need to be bolder?” “That is for you to answer.”’ (p. 58)
And answer Sofia tries. The opening pages of the novel see her hiding in her head and in her laptop, embarrassed and tongue-tied when faced with the poised person of Ingrid, a future lover: ‘I don’t know what to say, I’m blushing and I feel the same panic jitter in my chest’ (p. 34). Levy paints her gazing at produce in a fish market, where she goes to apply Gόmez’s unorthodox remedy, wondering if a slimy, shapeshifting octopus might take on her own form, if it ‘might even mimic the colour and texture of my human skin, which can also change colour, in excitement, in humiliation, or fear. Its skin could express mood, it could blush like I always blush when I am asked to spell my name’ (p. 78). But later chapters see Sofia undergo a radical transformation, unleashing her dormant sexuality as she embarks on relationships with women and men; driving through the Spanish mountains without a licence; freeing captive animals; and, finally, confronting her mother’s hold over her. Her body swells with this mythical metamorphosis: ‘The human body is getting bigger, my low-rise jeans are cutting into my hips which are round and brown and toned from a month of swimming every day but I am spilling over the waistband of these jeans not made for hips. I am overflowing like coffee leaking from a paper cup’ (p. 202).
Body and mind are intimately bound up in the novel, then – and in Rose’s own psychosomatic disease – but Sofia’s timidity is no biological matter. In a surprising piece of anti-pharmaceutical rhetoric, Gόmez expands: ‘“Imagine that you, Sofia Irina, are a little introverted. Let us say that you are shy and need to be bolder and to learn how to protect yourself in the everyday of your life. He [Señor James, the representative of an American pharmaceutical company] would like me to call this a social-anxiety disorder. In this way, I can sell you his medication for the disorder he has invented”’ (p. 179). But, as we have seen, Gόmez (part-consultant, part-psychotherapist, part witch-doctor) does not play ball. Rather than give Sofia one diagnosis (social anxiety), he gives her three (introverted, shy, non-bold). Rather than prescribe medicine, Gόmez prescribes stealing.
Gómez is not the only authority in Hot Milk, however, nor the only one to write a prescription. The novel opens with an epigraph taken from Cixous: ‘It’s up to you to break the old circuits’. It is up to Sofia to break the old circuits of self-defeat, ‘unpicking, unravelling, and starting all over again’ (p. 41), and this also means she is responsible for starting again in the right way. But what the right way is isn’t immediately obvious. Despite largely echoing Cixous’s call for women to be unafraid, to be heard, to write, the novel also alludes to the pitfalls associated with ‘monstrous’ extremes of female boldness, by way of Ingrid, whose strength is violent and destructive, or a Swedish restaurant-owner whose behaviour Sofia finds herself condemning in the fish market: ‘She commanded the cashier to scoop up the three lobsters and the monkfish and heave the tuna up on to the scales. Her voice was too loud. Perhaps she couldn’t hear herself, but we could hear her. The bells on her shoes jangled every time she changed the position of her feet. [….] Obviously, raising the voice compels attention and incites fear, but was she bold? Did I want to be bold like her? What shade of bold was I after?’ (p. 77).
Some forty years after Cixous’s visionary essay, Hot Milk reveals the difficulty we can still have in answering Sofia’s questions on our own terms, for ourselves. In the chapter entitled ‘Vanquishing Sofia’, Sofia tells us that ‘By the time I had finally climbed down the mountain path that led to the beach, I had journeyed as far from myself as I have ever been, far, far away from any landmarks I recognized’ (p. 202). But Sofia’s world remains one where her behaviour is constantly measured and judged against standards which keep moving, where behaviour is still prescribed, one way or another. While he may dismiss what he sees as psychiatric jargon, it is nonetheless Gόmez, an authoritarian patriarch, who tells Sofia that she has a problem (she’s not bold enough), and what she ought to do about it (be bolder). Sofia’s mother agrees she should finish her PhD, but still, she adds: ‘I can’t imagine you as a driver’ (p. 217). Sofia herself is a harsh critic of a woman whose confidence she interprets as brash and abrasive, as monstrous.
The final page of the novel leaves us with an image of jellyfish, Levy’s equivalent of Cixous’s Medusa: ‘The tide was coming in with all the medusas floating in its turbulence. The tendrils of the jellyfish in limbo, like something cut loose, a placenta, a parachute, a refugee severed from its place of origin’ (p. 218). Like the jellyfish, Sofia is protean, ready to take shape, but in a world of contradictory behavioural cues, which shape, which circuit, to choose? Hot Milk suggests that it takes a long time to break the old circuits, particularly those we carry in our heads, and that even new ones might, in the end, be chains.