While Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy Barton has the narrative mind of the novelist, Deborah Levy’s Sophia Papastergiadis has the mind of the poet. Lucy’s introspective pondering of the past has a residue of plot in the way that it tirelessly probes memory to piece together the formation of her identity. Sophia’s mind builds her identity through a collection of sensory impressions. It flits from experience to experience in present time, suggesting more than it explores. The pastiche of life encounters calls the reader of Levy’s Hot Milk to weave meaning from the associational images that Sophia encounters.
The irony of Sophia’s characterization is revealed in her definition of herself as a doctoral student of anthropology. Her unfinished dissertation hangs over her psyche as uncomfortably as the tops that rub against the medusa stings on her shoulder. She represents herself as processing life experience as a social scientist, yet she lacks the sustained concentration to explore life in carefully documented notes. The reader understands that the command of the present moment keeps her from the longer view of antiquity.
She is acutely aware of the stings of the moment, and her mind continuously makes the associative leap from sensation to sensation. Her perception of sights and sounds, odors and kinesthetics, enables the reader to taste life as she imbibes it. Her richly textured world becomes the world of the reader. And thus the novel is processed in the way a tourist examines a travel destination.
While the journey to Spain is represented as a search for a cure for the mother’s mysterious paralysis, it is in reality a search for a daughter’s long-delayed maturation. The psychic connection between the two plays out in the murky distance of a pseudo clinic presided over by a pseudo clinician. Gomes, who understands more than his fraudulent identity suggests, is the high priest of sensation. He may well be the poet behind the larger poem that the novel reveals.