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Too close for comfort: Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is very nearly greater than the sum of its parts

One of the most consistent pleasures of Levy’s fiction is her complete resistance to unthinking characters, unthinking female characters in particular.

Deborah Levy has long mined the seam of desire in her work, and not just plain old sexual desire – although that usually puts in an appearance. Rather, her interest inclines towards the various modes and implications of the deep push of longing itself, as well as the manner in which the pursuit of satiation moves her characters, both around themselves and around in the world. And her fiction is usually situated out in a world where international casts of artists, misfits and the occasional boor mix drinks and ­philosophies while playing and, sometimes, losing at life. Her excellent, Man Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home is the obvious example, and certainly the most fully realised of her novels. But this theme of life and thought explored in the absence of home stretches all the way back to Lapinski, the Russian-exile heroine of her debut novel, Beautiful Mutants (1989). Even the England of her stylistically constricted Billy and Girl (1996) has been pushed through some strange Freudian mirror to create a frantic, dystopian version of itself.

It’s a useful device that has served Levy with ever-increasing success since her migration from play-writing to fiction. By reeling her characters just far enough out from the probabilities of daily life – but not quite far enough for them to make a run for it – she backs them into scrutinising what they are, have been or might become. And so it is with Hot Milk.

Set predominantly in Spain, this is ostensibly the story of an Englishwoman, Rose, and her half-Greek daughter, Sofia, and the quest for a cure for the mysterious (possibly psychosomatic) paralysis that intermittently afflicts Rose’s legs. As the maverick Dr Gómez and his “last-chance saloon” diagnostic techniques soon show, Sofia is in as much need of intervention as the terminally self-centred Rose. Sofia has a First, a Masters and an abandoned PhD in anthropology, but works mainly as a waitress and “main witness” to her mother’s many ailments. Even locating the boundary between her mother’s sick body and her own well body has become fraught with difficulty. For Rose this situation holds no ambiguity: all suffering accrues to her and Sofia’s purpose is to provide relief. The scene is set for a classic tale of overbearing mother v put-upon adult daughter, and that, indeed, is what the reader gets; but not only that.

First, there is the great lush writing itself, and then the luxuriation in place. No writer infuses the landscape, urban or rural, with as much meaning and monstrosity as Levy. She remains blessedly immune to the lure of the “urban everywhere”, insisting on the ability of time and place to affect outcomes deeply. So it is only here, on the unrelenting, sun-stripped streets of Almería, to the backing track of a crazed dog barking, with the ever-present threat of lurking medusa jellyfish, and navigating the personal agendas of this particular ragbag of self-possessed – and dispossessed – internationals, that Sofia can no longer avoid the glare of her sabotaged life.

One of the most consistent pleasures of Levy’s fiction is her complete resistance to unthinking characters, unthinking female characters in particular. This trait is visible throughout Hot Milk. She allows line upon carefully crafted line of incisive observation to trip from Sofia’s tongue. In response to her mother’s comment that she cannot imagine her driving, she wonders, “How do we go about not imagining something?” Or her keen-eyed evaluation of a woman in the street: “Who is her body supposed to please? What is it for and is it ugly or is it something else?” With such quality abounding, it’s hard to hold more self-consciously constructed pronouncements – “My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep” or “I felt that she was indeed a gangster and that she was mugging my life” – against her.

Levy deftly twins the mother-daughter, physical-emotional paralysis from the outset, too, so the deep sense of filial bondage is clear. Yet it is Sofia’s obvious understanding of the reasons behind her failure to take on any of the responsibilities that might be expected of an intelligent, well-educated, 25-year-old woman that eventually creates a certain frustration with the narrative. She knows, and we know she knows, what both the problem and the solution are, almost from the first page. It is difficult to remain patient with a woman who colludes in overly extending her own adolescence.

Nevertheless, the way Levy draws the other strands together makes up for this irritation. While Sofia falling head over heels for another deeply self-centred woman may not convince, there is plenty to carry the reader willingly along: the exploration of the nature of hypochondria, the boundaries of parental responsibility (to accusations of paternal selfishness, the new, young wife of Sofia’s long-absent father offers the hilarious rebuttal: “Why would he do things not to his advantage?”) and the cynicism of pharmaceutical giants thwarting practitioners who refuse the doctrine of “A pill for every ill”. Interestingly, this is the second novel in as many years (Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island being the first) to feature anthropologists wielding their trade for alternative, and opposing, purposes.

If Hot Milk never quite succeeds in becoming greater than the sum of its many great parts, it very nearly does, and it is certainly an unmissable addition to Levy’s catalogue. 

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy is published by Hamish Hamilton (218pp, £12.99)

Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, will be published by Faber & Faber in September

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue

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How did Don’t Tell the Bride lose its spark?

Falling out of the love with reality TV’s wedding planning hit.

Steph, 23, from Nottinghamshire, is standing in a drizzly field wearing a wedding dress. Her betrothed, Billy, is running around in a tweed flat cap trying to make some pigs walk in “a continuous parade”. A man from Guinness World Records is watching with a clipboard, shaking his head. Bridesmaids gaze sorrowfully into the middle distance, each in a damp pig onesie.

Thus ends the second wedding in E4’s new series of Don’t Tell the Bride – and the programme’s integrity with it.

When the classic programme, which follows grooms attempting to plan their wedding (punchline: human males doing some organising), began a decade ago on BBC Three, it had the raw spark of unpredictability. For eight years, the show did nothing fancy with the format, and stuck with pretty ordinary couples who had few eccentric aspirations for their wedding day.

This usually resulted in run-of-the-mill, mildly disappointing weddings where the worst thing that happened would be a reception at the nearest motorway pub, or an ill-fitting New Look low heel.

It sounds dull, but anyone who has religiously watched it knows that the more low-key weddings expose what is truly intriguing about this programme: the unconditional commitment – or doomed nature – of a relationship. As one of the show’s superfans told the Radio Times a couple of years ago:

“It’s perfect, and not in an ironic or post-ironic or snarky way. The format has the solemn weight of a ceremony . . . Don’t Tell the Bride is not about ruined weddings, it’s about hope. Every wedding is a demonstration of how our ambitions curve away from our abilities. It’s a show about striving to deserve love and how that’s rarely enough.”

It also meant that when there were bombshells, they were stand-out episodes. High drama like Series 4’s notorious Las Vegas wedding almost resulting in a no-show bride. Or heart-warming surprises like the geezer Luke in Series 3 playing Fifa and guzzling a tinny on his wedding morning, who incongruously pulls off a stonking wedding day (complete with special permission from the Catholic Church).

For its eight years on BBC Three, a few wildcard weddings were thrown into the mix of each series. Then the show had a brief affair with BBC One, a flirt with Sky, and is now on its tenth year, 13th series and in a brand new relationship – with the more outrageous E4.

During its journey from BBC Three, the show has been losing its way. Tedious relationship preamble has been used to beef up each episode. Some of the grooms are cruel rather than clueless, or seem more pathetic and vulnerable than naïve. And wackier weddings have become the norm.

The programme has now fully split from its understated roots. Since it kicked off at the end of July, every wedding has been a publicity stunt. The pig farm nuptials are sandwiched between a Costa del Sol-based parasail monstrosity and an Eighties Neighbours-themed ceremony, for example. All facilitated by producers clearly handing the groom and best men karaoke booth-style props (sombreros! Inflatable guitars! Wigs!) to soup up the living room planning process.

Such hamminess doesn’t give us the same fly-on-the-wall flavour of a relationship as the older episodes. But maybe this level of artifice is appropriate. As one groom revealed to enraged fans in The Sun this week, the ceremonies filmed are not actually legally binding. “It makes a bit of a mockery of the process that the bride and groom go through this huge ordeal for a ceremony which isn’t even legal,” he said. Perhaps we should’ve predicted it would all eventually end in divorce – from reality.

Don’t Tell the Bride is on E4 at 9pm

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.