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George Point: Book Talk! “Land of Milk and Honey”


C Pam Zhang, bestselling author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold, returns with the Land of Milk and Honey (Riverhead Books).

Promoted as a work of dystopian fiction, Zhang’s novel may also be categorized as a cautionary tale, as in many ways the apocalyptic world she evokes skews uncomfortably close to the world we could easily be facing in our lifetimes. An enveloping fog has blocked the sun, an existential threat to the world’s already thinly stretched food supply. Scarcity, desperation and the breakdown of civil society rapidly ensue, as institutions struggle to feed the populace with the increasingly diminishing agricultural resources available to them.

In the midst of these desperate times, we meet our narrator, an Asian woman then 29 years old and an ambitious chef in California who finds herself witnessing the demise of her chosen profession as the result of the dire consequences to the global food supply.

The crushing realization dawns on her that the curtain has rung down on the possibility of experiencing and creating gustatory pleasure for herself and her patrons, perhaps forever. With the once-bountiful state turning into a food desert virtually overnight, and without the ingredients she needs to create, her identity — bound up in the title “chef” — seems to be on the verge of extinction.

Then, the possibility of a reprieve, if not salvation. She learns of an opening for a position as a chef in a “private research community” on the Italian / French border. It is financed by uber-rich private investors high enough in the mountains of Italy to escape the worst effects of the deadly smog. Desperate in her pursuit of returning to the pleasures of the kitchen, she inflates her resume well beyond her true experience and (she believes) successfully lies her way into a self-contained world, crossing into what indeed appears to be “tierra di latte a miele” — a land of milk and honey.

“Impress me,” her erstwhile employer commands at her interview, after taking her past the private residences to the restaurant at the mountaintop, leaving her to prove her worth in a kitchen constructed with no expense spared, provisioned with a bounty of real ingredients she thought had ceased to exist. Despite her anxiety, she reconnects with the pleasure, the sensuality of food, reigniting memories of long-absent pleasures of the senses, and of the flesh. It’s a far cry from the world of “gray plates and empty shelves” below.

After a tenuous beginning, she begins to raise her culinary game, exploring far-ranging recipes and ingredients in collaboration with her employer, learning to please his investor / residents. And she soon learns that she has entered a closed society, positioned literally and figuratively above a starving world. Overseen by a self-governing elite, the ostensible goal of its secret warren of underground laboratories is to bio-engineer smog resistant crops, preserve and propagate keystone species, and share the results with an increasingly desperate world.

She also learns that she didn’t secure the position on the strength of her lies, which were known to her employer well before she arrived for her interview. Playing on her fear of returning to the world below and enticing her with a taste of the luxuries unobtainable there, it’s eventually revealed to her that the true role that her employer had in mind for her was that of a kind of seductress.

I’ll avoid a spoiler and leave it there, except to say that on more than one level Land of Milk and Honey is a tale of seduction, sexual and non; the seduction of the chef by her employer and by his daughter, the role of seductress that the young woman is thrust into, the seduction of power and its consequences.

Revealing where Zhang’s tale leads from there would involve crossing a minefield of spoilers. It’s enough to say that in the end Land of Milk and Honey will awaken your appetites, lament the indignities humankind has inflicted on the planet, and plant the hope that maybe, just maybe, redemption and spiritual rebirth are indeed possible.

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