What do novelists have against tech billionaires? Several recent books have used Elon Musk types as bogeymen, from the excellent (Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood) to the dire (Sebastian Faulks’s The Seventh Son). Done well, their inclusion gives real-world crunch to outsized conceits. Done poorly, however, it comes across as satire at its laziest.
C Pam Zhang’s second novel, Land of Milk and Honey, falls into the latter category. It’s a disappointment, especially after her wonderful 2020 debut, How Much of These Hills is Gold. Longlisted for the Booker Prize, the latter was a Western – but one that gralloched the clichés of the genre. It told the story of a Chinese-American family in the 1840s Gold Rush; the West was won, Zhang showed, not just with a Winchester Repeater, but by the unsung drudgery of thousands of immigrants.
Land of Milk and Honey is a Western too – of sorts. Set in a near-contemporary world, it features a young chef who finds herself adrift after climate collapse decimates the earth’s crops. To compound her woes, America has closed its borders to all but the very wealthy, meaning she can’t return home. But she’s offered a lifeline: a position in the kitchen of a private research institution, high in the Italian Alps, run by a creepy billionaire with a shady past. The billionaire is helped in his schemes by his nubile, precocious daughter – whom the chef promptly falls in love with.
It’s a promising set-up: John Fowles’s The Magus for an era of climate crisis. Yet rather than lean into its thrillerish potential, Zhang insists on literary primping and tweezing, like a Michelin chef faffing about with foams and micro-greens. Even when her antagonist performs feats that would shame Dr Evil, such as serving woolly mammoth for dinner or resurrecting extinct apes only to wipe them out in a hunt, Zhang sticks to the same over-clotted style. Some sentences challenge basic biomechanics: “I was… swallowed down the throat of a life in which sole loyalty was to my tongue.”
This is a pity: beneath the prose, Land of Milk and Honey makes sharp points about the invisibility of migrant workers in kitchens. “It’s an advantage that they cannot tell you people apart,” one character tells the chef. “It’s always been easy to disappear as an Asian woman,” she herself reflects. Yet Zhang has written the literary equivalent of a Turducken: a love story, stuffed inside a thriller, wodged into the carcass of a climate-crisis satire. It’s overly fatty, and altogether too much.
Land of Milk and Honey is published by Hutchinson Heinemann at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books