Book Review - Land of Milk and Honey

C Pam Zhang’s acclaimed debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, was about the wild west during the gold rush. Her second novel explores another world ravaged by greed. Set in the near future, Land of Milk and Honey imagines the planet’s devastation after an environmental catastrophe has shrouded the world in smog: “Biodiversity fell… Scientists bickered over the smog’s composition and politicians over whether pollution or lax carbon taxes or China or nuclear testing or America or Russia were to blame, and all the while the darkness, slightly acidic, ate its way through fertile fields.”

A nameless 29-year-old Asian chef, raised in California, is stranded in London. America, decimated by famine, has closed its borders, while the English live on the bland “mung-protein-soy-algal flour distributed by the government”. She applies to work for an elite community of investors and scientists who inhabit a smog-free idyll in the Italian Alps. Ostensibly, their objective is to bioengineer resilient food crops for the masses, but really their aim is to preserve a haven for a favoured few. The chef is given rare ingredients and instructed to cook them lavish 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 constructs an unsettling, vertiginous world. Her ornate style may not appeal to all, but it reflects the opulence her characters guard so closely. Her command of sensory language is impressive, and it’s hard not be mesmerised by prose that is as rich and as startling as the food her protagonist prepares. This ambitious novel frustrates and tantalises in equal measure.

Originally publihed by The Observer