Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang review – an intriguing tale of post-apocalyptic cuisine
Pam Zhang’s well-received first book, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, delved into the rugged landscape of the western United States during the gold rush. In her second novel, she takes on a different setting plagued by human greed. In a future not too far off, Land of Milk and Honey paints a bleak picture of a planet ravaged by an environmental disaster, leaving it engulfed in a thick layer of smog. The decline of biodiversity is just one of the consequences as scientists debate the smog’s composition and politicians point fingers at various factors such as pollution, lax carbon taxes, China, nuclear testing, and America. As the darkness, tainted with acidity, slowly devours once-fertile lands, the world is left to suffer the consequences.
An anonymous Asian chef, 29 years old and originally from California, finds herself stuck in London. Due to a severe famine in America, the borders have been closed and the English are surviving on a monotonous diet provided by the government consisting of “mung-protein-soy-algal flour”. In search of a new opportunity, she applies for a job with a prestigious group of investors and scientists who reside in a pollution-free paradise in the Italian Alps. While their stated goal is to genetically modify crops to withstand harsh conditions for the general population, their true intention is to create a sanctuary for a select few. The chef is given access to rare ingredients and tasked with preparing extravagant meals.
Her enigmatic boss – his spray-on orange tan recalls Donald Trump; his ambitions are akin to those of Elon Musk – is a bully: “Most disquieting was his voice. The vowels came coarse and jarring, cadences lumpen, the effect like a bag of rocks dragged downstream.” She learns that he made his fortune selling saline IV drips at a markup when consecutive pandemics hit. With “a nose for scarcity and impending disaster”, he had bought the land long before the smog arrived, naming the titular country with “a prophet’s arrogance”.
Zhang creates a disconcerting and dizzying universe. Her elaborately detailed writing mirrors the luxurious lifestyles of her characters, and her skill in using sensory language is remarkable. It is difficult not to be captivated by her prose, which is as lavish and surprising as the dishes her main character cooks. This ambitious book is both frustrating and alluring.
The novel, Land of Milk and Honey, written by C Pam Zhang, is released by Hutchinson Heinemann for £16.99. You can purchase your own copy at guardianbookshop.com to support the Guardian and Observer. Additional fees may apply for delivery.