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The dystopian suspense 'Land of Milk and Honey' satisfies all manner of appetites

Penguin Random House

The unhinged autocrat is a familiar figure in literature — think King Lear — but the fat cat in C Pam Zhang's dystopian novel, Land of Milk and Honey, has an updated Elon Musk vibe. In a not-too-distant world, where most plant and animal species have been smothered by a smog that blankets the planet, human beings largely subsist on bags of "mung-protein-soy-algal flour distributed by the government."

But not Zhang's unnamed entrepreneur, who's bought himself a mountaintop in Italy where the sun still shines. He's leased shares of this land to wealthy investors and lured top scientists to work on "de-extinction" teams, where they cultivate animals and precious seeds in underground farms and orchards. Like Musk with his SpaceX, this guy also has the ultimate Plan B in the works, should Planet Earth be irredeemably lost.

The narrator of Land of Milk and Honey is also unnamed. She's a young Asian American chef who finds herself stuck in England when America's borders close and also stuck in a profession without a future. The menus of the few restaurants that remain cater to a growing demand for nativist recipes. The chef tells us that:

In desperation, the chef applies for a job at the so-called "elite research community" presided over by the mogul, or, as she will refer to him, "my employer." Her stated job is to whip up extravagant meals to delight the tastebuds of the rich residents and prospective investors, as well as the mogul's charismatic daughter, Aida.

But the longer the chef toils away in the isolated compound, the more she realizes that she's been hired less for her cooking skills, than for her appearance: specifically, for the fact that she, like Aida's mother who's vanished, is Asian. Never mind that their ethnicities are not exactly the same. As the chef tells us: "It has always been easy to disappear as an Asian woman. ...[To be] mistaken for Japanese or Korean or Lao women decades older or younger, several shades darker or lighter, for my own mother once I hit puberty."

Given that it's a novel about the struggle to fend off deprivation and extinction, Land of Milk and Honey is gloriously lush. Zhang's sensuous style makes us see, smell and, above all, taste the lure of that sun-dappled mountain enclave.

Here, for instance, is the moment where our narrator descends into one of the mogul's vast storerooms for the first time:

As she did in her debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, which toyed with the expectations of the classic Western, Zhang here helps herself to generous portions of another type of genre: the vintage sci-fi disaster movie. I'm thinking especially of the 1951 classic, When Worlds Collide.

Zhang invests this pop plotline with emotional gravitas and up-to-date relevancy through the character of the chef, a young woman who belongs to what's dubbed "Generation Mayfly," because her cohort's life expectancy is shorter than that of their parents. Our chef tells us that: "So much of what my generation has been promised disintegrated at our touch."

Land of Milk and Honey is an atmospheric and poetically suspenseful novel about all manner of appetites: for power, food, love, life. At its center is one of the most baroque banquet scenes you'll ever be invited to — one that wickedly tests the pluck of even the most ravenous eaters and readers.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.