In C Pam Zhang’s second novel, the focus is on food, but that focus is a bit hazy at times due to a plague of smog and its effects. In the not so distant future, most of the world is lost in smog, and it’s decimated humans, and wiped out most flora and fauna. Cli-Fi, Sc-Fi, and dystopian elements mix with affairs of the heart, taste buds, and our sensory experiences overall. Thought-provoking, unnerving, and deeply moving at times, this is a worthy follow up to the author’s sensational debut novel, How Much of These Hills is Gold.
An unnamed narrator tells us of this wounded world, looking back from roughly four decades to her 29th year. She describes the mass extinction events, the loss of countless species, seeds, plants, and grains, and the scattered efforts to counter those epic, tragic losses. She’s a chef, locked out of her homeland when America closes its borders, but she stumbles upon a job offer at a mountaintop resort in Italy, and this post-apocalyptic tale spends most of its time there.
Her employer is part Doctor No, part Elon Musk, part carnival barker, and money is a key to which part takes center stage, and when. To keep the money flowing in, to fund his quixotic vision, he wines and dines the 0.1% and bribes key Italian officials to look the other way. His “residents” are his investors, present day and hoped for. The narrator is hired to make sure the fat cats stay fat and happy, pliable, open to more and more investing. Aida, the employer’s brilliant and beautiful daughter, runs the underground labs, specializing in de-extinction research and experimentation.
There are mysteries to unearth below the resort, and in the hearts and minds of father and daughter, and Aida acts as guide — reluctantly at first, then with a passion. She and the narrator have a brief, intense, wildly unpredictable affair, and its effects are tragic.
The novel shines the most for me when the author talks about the senses, what we miss when this or that is gone, be it human connections, food, landscapes, or language. In her post-story acknowledgements, C Pam Zhang lists dozens of restaurants, specific dishes, people, places, and organizations that helped her along the way, and that research, that love, that passion shows up in the writing that came before it. A sensuous, often beautiful novel, Land of Milk and Honey is also a warning, indirect, steeped in the human condition, but never from on high.