I love bookshops. When I visit a foreign city, if I chance upon a bookshop or know of a bookshop around the corner, I will definitely head there. Once I picked up Le Petit Prince in French from a bookshop in Lyon. It is now sitting in my elder daughter’s bedroom. I have read the book in English and yet to read it in French. It is on my reading list.
I’m always on the lookout for new books. You will be surprised at the books that you acquire when you walk into a bookshop in a foreign city.
In a foreign country where English is not the first language, when I check out the local bookstores I do see interesting English language books. Once my daughter and I stayed at Hostel Book and Bed Ikebukuro in Tokyo , I had to resist the temptation of purchasing their bookbag. If not for the fact that I could barely manage my big luggage containing winter clothing and that I could not possibly lug along more books apart from those I have already brought from home, I would have bought their bookbag.
Once I was in Brisbane, inside a shop at the Botanical Garden, I picked up a little book entitled Adrenalin Junkies by Matt Church. The book talks about the major natural chemicals that contribute to mood change and how adrenalin is a powerful chemical force if it is used well but prolonged periods of high level adrenalin can leave you edgy and have an adrenalin crash. It is important to balance our body chemistry so we can achieve a calm readiness. Food and exercise play a role in increasing serotonin level. Serotonin is the chemical of happiness and enduring motivation and I cannot agree more.
During my recent visit to Singapore, my daughters took me to the Moon Bookstore and caféclick. The books are arranged by colour. I picked up Hot Milk by Deborah Levy right away after reading its opening paragraph.
‘2015. Almeria. Southern Spain. August
Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor of a bar built on the beach. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath (designed like an envelope), landing screen side down. The digital page is now shattered but at least it still works. My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else.
So what I am saying is that if it is broken, so am I.’
Hot Milk is a story about a mother and daughter relationship. Sofia Papastergiadis, aged 25 is a half-Greek anthropology graduate. She has to abandon her low-income job as a barista in a café in West London and put her PhD on hold to care for her hypochondriac English mother, Rose who has raised her single-handedly. Rose’s chronic paralysis is a mystery to various UK doctors so both mother and daughter set out to Spain to seek a cure from Dr Gomez. Rose has re-mortgaged her house in Hackney to pay for her medical treatment and physiotherapy, a total cost of twenty-five thousand euro. Sophia accompanies her mother to spend a month in Andalusia to ‘decipher her aches and pains, their triggers and motivations.’ During her stay with her mother, she makes a trip to Athens to visit her father whom she has not seen for eleven years. Her dad has a new baby by Alexandra his young wife who is only four years older than her. The story is narrated in Sofia’s voice.
‘Things got worse. It turns out that Alexandra is a minor mainstream economist. This was useful, because I have come to Athens to call in a debt my father owes me for never being around. Perhaps in his own mind he has absolved himself by putting all his late paternal energy into my sister, Evangeline.’
Deborah Levy writes,
‘ But his debts go back a long way. As a result of his first default, my mother has a mortgage on my life.’
She also writes,
‘ What is money?
Money is a medium of exchange. Jade, oxen, rice, eggs, beads, nails, pigs and amber have all been used for making payments and recording debts and credits. And so have children. I have been traded off for Alexandra and Evangeline, but I am supposed to pretend not to notice.
Pretending not to notice and pretending to forget are my special skills. If I were to pluck out my eyes, it would please my father, but memory is like a bar code, I am the human scanner.’
Growing old is not fun but Mrs Rose Papastergiadis is just sixty-four years old, not that old really. She complains of chronic knuckle in her left hand, pain in the inside of her elbow and all kinds of mysterious symptoms. Sofia’s narration is interjected with humour.
‘ If I see myself as an unwilling detective with a desire for justice, does that make her illness an unsolved crime? If so, who is the villain and who is the victim? Attempting to decipher her aches and pains, their triggers and motivations, is a good training for an anthropologist. There have been times when I thought I was on the verge of a major revelation and knew where the corpses were buried, only to be thwarted once again. Rose merely presents a new and entirely mysterious symptom for which she is prescribed new and entirely mysterious medication. The UK doctors recently prescribed anti-depressants for her feet. That’s what she told me – they are for the nerve endings in her feet.’
Sofia has to become bolder and more independent and not tied to her mother’s grievances. It is a self-discovery journey and wake-up call for Sofia and her mother.
Hot Milk is a coming of age story. Its prose is poetic and its story though simple, imaginative and cleverly crafted by its author . It was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. I was truly glad to discover another contemporary writer and will be reading more of Deborah Levy‘s writings.