Ocean of Milk by Belinda Aycrigg
Waking up in a hospital, all memory erased, Amalia enters a bizzare world where nothing is normal. She experiences everything as if for the first time. Her perplexed husband, staunch father, and mother who wants nothing more than a pit of peace, all find their lives thrown into turmoil. Only Amalia’s two young sons seem unfazed, travelling with their mother to a magical world of beauty and colour.
Her doctors assure her that her memories will return with time, but that provides scant comfort as she not only starts to remember things that have never happened, but also acquires a repertoire of curious abilities. As her two worlds start to collide, the chaos escalates until it is not only her family that are disturbed.
So begins the premise of New Zealand author Belinda Aycrigg’s debut novel. Aycrigg says she sought to create “a protagonist who had no preconveived ideas; she would be able to see things afresh, free from conditioning by prevailing paradigms”. Oddly enough, this is also the experience of the reader.
Ocean of Milk is a book that will challenge readers. It is simultaneously capitivating and intimidating. Readers who like to analyse and reflect as they read will find this a hard book to read. However, if you cast aside any preconceived ideas – just like Amalia experiences – your enjoyment of the story will increase exponentially.
The story overall was a little hard and confusing to wrap your head around. However, this mirrors Amalia’s experience, of waking up on a beach with absolutely no memory of being, or of being in the world. Aycrigg’s description of a road from the point of view of Amalia travelling home from hospital is beautiful. It is these moments that make the reader reflect and analyse, drawing on their own understandings of our world. On reflection, this is the storyline that I wanted to keep reading.
However, Aycrigg progresses the story into magical realism. A kitten takes over as narrator for a while. Trees talk, Amalia flies and can morph into animals.
Aycrigg’s lyrical writing and perfect pacing sucks you in to a certain point, but as the alternative reality side of Amalia gets stronger and stronger though, this magical realism side of the novel becomes a little too overcooked. There are also times when the political aspects overtook too much. Amalia and her immediate family have strong viewpoints on vaccinations, schooling, medication and the like. A social worker becomes a cliché villain.
Aycrigg has subscribed to the Vaisnava philosophy since her 20s. She has said she had hoped the book tries to portray some of the deeper philosophy behind Hare Krishna. Those with an interest in social anthropology will find this book fascinating.
Ocean of Milk is an ambitious debut novel that just misses the mark by a few millimetres. The book is marketed as a “roller coaster set in a dream-like world” and that is, again, how readers will walk away feeling after reading it – with mixed views wondering what on earth you just read.
Reviewer: Rebekah Fraser
99% Press, an imprint of Lasavia Publishing, RRP $34.99