Reading Guide: Fall in love with Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy’s writing has the bittersweet simplicity of Hemingway and the intriguing strangeness of Murakami with a key element both authors lack: well-developed female characters.


Susan Behrends Valenzuela

Deborah Levy’s novels are sophisticated fictions with compelling characters and feminist themes. (Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

Audrey Abrahams, Contributing Writer

Deborah Levy’s fiction is bewitching and addictive. If schoolwork is leaving you with little free time, Levy’s short books are quick but impactful reads that are worth sparing a minute. While her books may start off slow, carefully included details accumulate and slowly consume your attention. Her writing style is elaborate and unique without being overly flowery. Her characters, while quite passive, are acutely compelling, especially her fully realized female characters. 

Levy’s female characters are refreshingly honest and complicated. Feminist themes are neatly woven throughout her books and their  plots. Levy excels at noting the little tragedies of womanhood that often go unaddressed in literature. 

An illustration of the cover of Deborah Levy’s book “Hot Milk” against a light blue background.
(Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

“Hot Milk”

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Levy’s 2016 novel “Hot Milk” follows the story of Sofia, a young and apathetic anthropologist who has uprooted her life in search of a cure to her mother’s mysterious paralysis at a dubious clinic in Spain.

Sofia is an unreliable narrator, blending reality with daydreams and hypochondria over her mother’s condition to create a story in which the truth isn’t entirely discernible. She floats through sun-faded days swimming with jellyfish, exploring her sexuality with a careless German seamstress, and trying to abate the stubborn misery of her unaffectionate mother. As Sofia sacrifices more of her life to take care of her sick mother, she is met with only guilt-tripping and disappointment. 

“My love for my mother is like an axe,” Sofia explains. “It cuts very deep.” 

“Hot Milk” doesn’t address feminism through a call for action, nor does it depict a satisfying feminism victory in its story. It does, however, present an honest and thorough depiction of patriarchy in its world. Levy shows the subtle, yet inescapable suffering women face at the hands of men, with the paramount example being Sofia’s father, whose abandoning of her and her mother serves as the root of their conflict with each other. 

The jellyfish Sofia swims with — and is often stung by — are referred to as Medusa. In some Spanish dialects, Medusa is the direct translation for jellyfish, and the animal draws its origins from the Greek mythological monster of the same name. This myth is a dominant motif throughout the novel as the mythical Medusa’s story of female rage and powerlessness weaves itself into Sofia’s story. For example, when filling out a form, Sofia puts down her occupation as “monster.” Her struggle with this identity, exacerbated by her mother’s disappointment, is an intriguing exploration of women succumbing to excess pressure in the wake of patriarchal absence.

An illustration of the cover of Deborah Levy’s book “The Man Who Saw Everything” against a light blue background.
(Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

“The Man Who Saw Everything”

Halfway through reading “The Man Who Saw Everything,” Levy begins to reveal that nothing is what it seems. The writing style consists of short, refined sentences that are beautiful in their simplicity and bewildering in their content.

“The Man Who Saw Everything” follows protagonist Saul Adler, a narcissistic, pretty-boy historian, who takes a trip to East Berlin to conduct academic research on movements opposed to fascism, as well as to bury the ashes of his communist father. There, he falls in love with his translator, Walter Müller, while navigating a tumultuous relationship with on-and-off girlfriend Jennifer Moreau. Adler also juggles a sudden connection with Müller’s wild younger sister, Luna, who only sees Adler as her ticket out of Berlin. His exploration of the city and conversations with Müller’s family are fascinating and well written enough to make your mind skip over a few subtle anachronisms that hint toward Adler’s narration being untrustworthy. 

The book opens with Adler and Moreau. As they recreate The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album cover, he is hit by a car, and suffers a few bruises and scrapes. Euphonious fragments of their dialogue are dispersed throughout the book, unattached to the plot. 

As reality becomes indiscernible, critical moments in Adler’s life drift by that show how he has spent his life disappointing and neglecting those who love him. Despite his flaws and narcissism, Levy fosters in her reader an emotional attachment to Adler that makes the book worth sticking with until the end. 

An illustration of the cover of Deborah Levy’s book “An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell” against a light blue background.
(Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

“An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell”

“An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell” is a 75-page, fabulously titled book of poems that tells the back-and-forth conversation between a lively angel descended from heaven and a dull accountant content with his life in the North Ilford suburbs. Its humorous, poetic language is an absolute delight.

The poems portray British suburbs both as the fulfilling and secure gardened paradise that the accountant sees them as, and the restricting hell that the angel tries to free him from. Levy subverts the common narrative of wives as angels. The accountant wants the archetypal angelic wife who is sweet, laughs at his jokes, and subordinately supports him. The real angel, however, only wants to challenge and enliven him in the name of rescue. She generously tries to save him from his mundane life with her abundant passion, but he is frustratingly content on simply chatting with the mailman and calling his brother, refusing any attempts at being, as the angel would put it, saved.

For those who don’t particularly enjoy reading standalone poems, this collection reads more like a sharp and funny play that you’ll want to finish.

Contact Audrey Abrahams at [email protected].