C Pam Zhang’s sophomore novel has the same striking prose that made her debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold (2020), so remarkable, but the similarities end there. Land of Milk and Honey is much stranger and perhaps even more beautiful. It’s a dystopian novel about food, pleasure, power, monstrosity and womanhood. It’s about the threads that keep us rooted to ourselves and each other, and about what happens when those threads fray and dissolve. The sheer range of Zhang’s imagination is striking.
A gray smog has spread across the world, causing catastrophic food shortages and global famine. A struggling chef, adrift, alone and stranded in Europe when the U.S. borders close, takes a job for a billionaire, preparing meals for his elite research community on a mountaintop in Italy. There, she cooks extravagant meals with ingredients that have disappeared from the rest of the world—aged cheeses, fresh meat, delicate greens, strawberries. Slowly, she cooks her way back to herself, finding pleasures she thought she’d lost forever. But she’s also forced to confront the reality of what her mysterious employer and his genius daughter are doing in this strange paradise—and the narrator’s own complicity in it.
Zhang’s sentences are visceral and heated. She writes about food and bodies with frenzied truthfulness. There is nothing pretty in this novel, but there is outrageous beauty. There is nothing nice in the way she describes the act of cooking, elaborate meals, butter or honey dissolving on the tongue, sex, bodily pleasure. Instead, Zhang’s prose is sensual, lavish, violent, incredibly close, without restraint. The narrator describes events from a distance of many years, but this only makes the heady details she recalls even more remarkable. For the narrator, and thus, for the readers, that old cliche “it feels like it happened yesterday” is undeniably true.
Land of Milk and Honey casts the kind of spell that readers can spend a lifetime hungering for. To read this book is to know yourself as a being made of skin and touch, a being made of other bodies. The impact is powerful and immediate. This is an astonishingly accomplished work, a deceptively simple dystopian vision that lays bare the heartbreaking complexities of seeking and giving pleasure, of wanting and loving in a world that is fundamentally shattered and forever shattering anew. It is the kind of uncomfortably honest art that disturbs and unsettles. It is also a generous and wildly celebratory ode to what keeps humans striving for something beyond mere survival: art, connection, taste, the sublime and fleeting pleasures of the body.