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The female body: Eileen & Hot Milk

Hot Milk & Eileen | edge of evening

It’s up to you to break the old circuits.Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, epigraph to ‘Hot Milk’ by Deborah Levy

So often with reading, it’s all about the connections. The secret conversations between one book and the next. And, blue covers & Booker shortlist connection aside, the two books I ended last year with had a lot to talk to one another about. Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen and Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk could stay up all night talking about mothers (alive and dead), fathers (alcoholic and abandoning), alienation, boldness, sexuality, and the female body. They’re also both compulsively readable novels.

I came to Ottessa Moshfegh through her short stories which are fearless and physical and altogether unlike anything else. I highly recommend ‘Bettering Myself’ in the Paris Review (subscription or free trial needed to read the whole story). Eileen is set over a few days before Christmas in 1964 and narrated by a much older Eileen looking back on her twenty-four year old self and what turned out to be her last few days in X-ville, the town where she grew up and lives with her alcoholic father.

So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me. I was twenty-four years old then, and had a job that paid fifty-seven dollars a week as a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. I think of it now as what it really was for all intents and purposes — a prison for boys. I will call it Moorehead. Delvin Moorehead was a terrible landlord I had years later, and so to use his name for such a place feels appropriate. In a week, I would run away from home and never go back.

This is the story of how I disappeared. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

So much of the book’s appeal lies in its atmosphere — Moshfegh’s ability to pull you fast & deep into Eileen’s constricted and squalid world. Eileen’s hatred of her own body and fear of her sexuality runs right through the novel. It’s interesting to see the book reviewed as a thriller in various places, which ties in with Moshfegh’s stated intention to write something that would get the attention of mainstream publishing houses (“it started out as a fuck-you joke, also I’m broke, also I want to be famous. It was that kind of a gesture.“). Read as a thriller, I can see its flaws, but read as a novel about escape and becoming and selfhood, it’s thrilling.

I also read some of Deborah Levy’s short stories last year, enjoyed her previous novel, Swimming Home, and have written before about my love of her essay Things I Don’t Want to Know. Hot Milk is dreamlike, mythic, unsettling. Levy’s novel dispenses with many of the niceties that make fiction seem ‘realistic’. Things happen in a way that reminds me of reading Iris Murdoch: veracity is achieved without too much concern for believability.

Twenty-five year old Sofia has accompanied her mother, Rose, to the Spanish coast to consult Dr Gómez, their last hope in understanding why Rose can sometimes walk and sometimes not. Rose’s incapacity has trapped Sofia on the brink of adulthood & the journey brings with it questions of sexuality, illness and the extent to which we are bound to the body of the mother. It’s a coming-of-age novel with a difference, as Sofia realises the extent to which she is stuck and, following the advice of Gomez, attempts to become bolder.

Yes, some things are getting bigger, other things are getting smaller. Love is getting bigger and more dangerous. Technology is getting smaller, 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 still spilling over the waistband of these jeans not made for hips. 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?

I was flesh thirst desire dust blood lips cracking feet blistered knees skinned hips bruised, but I was so happy not to be napping on a sofa under a blanket with an older man by my side and a baby on my lap. 

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Lisa Appignanesi invokes a comparison with Elena Ferrante which I think is fitting: “Only Elena Ferrante writes of the seepages of illness and woman’s identity in the family with equal insight. But Levy’s prose is gleeful and punctuated by a scabrous wit.” I loved Hot Milk — its inscrutability, its mysteries, its refusal to allow anything to settle into simple understanding.

And reading an interview with Levy, I’m so excited about what she’s working on next:

Levy is now working on a sequel to Things I Don’t Want to Know, called The Cost of Living. “I’m going to talk about the making of home,” she says. “Women put so much of their energy into creating a home: it’s something I respect deeply; I’ve made a few myself. But there comes a stage, it seems to me, where women don’t feel at home in their home; the very place they’ve created is the place they want to leave. That interests me.” Identity, exile and dislocation again: in a literary sense, at least, Levy has found her home, and leaving doesn’t appear to be an option.interview with Deborah Levy

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There’s something off in my timing. Things here now lag several weeks (months?) behind my actual reading. I confuse myself about what I’ve said here & what I’ve said on Instagram. My digital lives seem to run in a time independent of me. Anyway, Shari kindly asked me what my favourite reads of last year were & in fiction I came up with these two plus Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, Han Kang’s Human Acts & The Iceberg by Marion Coutts for a top five, feeling very bad about leaving out Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce. How about you?

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