A solid coming-of-age novel is a wonderful thing. The sort of book that reminds you that – no matter how old you are – it’s okay not to have everything entirely worked out in your life. Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is one of the best modern coming-of-age novels I’ve read in a long time because of this. It succeeds where I’ve seen so many other books fail – having a protagonist that is incredibly human and, as a result, incredibly relatable.
At the core of the novel is Sofia, a twenty-something anthropologist, and her mother, who suffers from serious joint problems in her legs. The two of them have travelled to Spain, seeking the help of the supposedly brilliant Dr Gomez. Isolated from her life back in England, and trapped in a remote Spanish community, Sofia discovers a lot about herself – as well as her complex relationship with her mother.
Hot Milk is a novel about identity, focusing Sofia discovering who she is, and who she wants to be, through the relationships she makes while in Spain. The main appeal of the novel, to me at least, is its heroine’s fantastically well-defined voice. Sofia feels original yet relatable, and is incredibly easy to like. She’s the sort of protagonist that every reader can find a piece of themselves in. She fumbles through most of the novel – not being driven by a clear goal like most protagonists – bemoaning her laptop’s cracked screen and arguing with her mother.
It’s a joy to see the world filtered through her eyes. Like most great novels written in the first person, Hot Milk offers a unique viewpoint, with Sofia’s observations ranging from hilarious to depressing – though sometimes they’re both. Some of my favourite passages in the novel focus on Sofia’s relationship with her step-mother and father. Though the scenes draw a lot of comedy from the awkwardness of their relationship, it’s also heart-breaking. ‘Estranged parents’ isn’t exactly an original focus, but the novel handles it really well.
Hot Milk isn’t the sort of plot-intensive novel that keeps you on your toes with its many twists and turns; it tells a simple story that, at its core, is incredibly easy to connect to. It’s book with characters that feel truly alive – and that’s one of the best compliments I can pay any novel.