Shiny Prize Season – Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang, & I Have Some Questions For You by Rebecca Makkai – Carol Shields Prize

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Reviews by Laura Tisdall

Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang

Land of Milk and Honey, C Pam Zhang’s second and so far, strongest, novel, is set in a near-future where 98% of the world’s food supplies have been destroyed by an unshiftable smog, which blocks sunlight and wreaks havoc with arable crops and animal life-cycles alike. Our narrator is a Chinese-American chef who’s nearing thirty in a world where life expectancies have been dramatically reduced due to the air quality – her age group have been nicknamed ‘The Mayfly Generation’. She takes a job at a mountaintop colony where the skies are clear and the rich continue to access the dishes of the past, from the bitter greens that our protagonist craves to the last remaining Bresse chickens and pastries heavy with real butter. Her employer seems to want her to step sexlessly into the place of his vanished Asian wife, but it’s his adult daughter, Aida, whom she’s drawn to.

This could be read as a simplistic moral rant about the greed of the rich – how there would be enough food to go round, even in this world, if they would only share, how disgusting it is for them to gorge themselves while the rest of the world subsists on mung-protein flour – but I think Land of Milk and Honey is more complex than that. Our narrator becomes complicit in this colony, and inspired by Aida’s zeal, especially when Aida explains how her scientific work has already contributed to the world through developing ‘a cultivar of mung beans that grow in the dark’, the crop that has sustained the world through providing calories, if not taste, and how the Italian government confiscated their research and ‘used our work to make another monoculture’. Aida’s father is a kind of Elon Musk or Stockton Rush figure, blinded by his own belief in himself and his right to operate outside boundaries, but Aida’s morals are considerably more interesting.

Zhang’s writing is also, simply, stunning. This book reminded me of both Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed and Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi’s The Centre in its evocation of what we consume and when we go hungry, and there are set-piece chapters that just blaze out of the text: the opening chapter, a confrontation with a key investor, a ‘slumming’ trip to Milan for a bit of food tourism. The ending is unexpected in the best of ways; I always enjoy eco-dystopias that move away from being simply portents of doom, and Zhang achieves this beautifully. Where Land of Milk and Honey lost me slightly was in the bits in between its key moments, which tend to blur into a litany of dishes and desire, keeping the reader too distant. The way Aida was written crystallised these problems for me: she’s a fascinating character, but I felt very little emotion towards her until very late in the day. The narrator is clearly reconnecting with her own self and perhaps some of this numbness is feeding through, and the last few paragraphs are incredibly moving, but I wish I could have been as mesmerised by this whole book as I was by its final chapters.

I Have Some Questions For You by Rebecca Makkai

I know there are a lot of readers, like me, who can’t resist a campus novel, but recently, I’ve noticed that it’s not just campus novels but particular kinds of campus novel that I’m drawn to. I’ve named this sub-sub-genre ‘Something Bad Happened When I Was At College, Now It’s Coming Back To Bite Me’. Something Bad Happened When I Was At College novels range from the enjoyably trashy (Ashley Winstead’s In My Dreams I Hold A Knife, Jenny Hollander’s Everyone Who Can Forgive Me Is Dead) to the more thoughtful and literary (Genevieve Scott’s The Damages). Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions For You is definitely in the latter category. Bodie is returning to her old prep school, Granby, for the first time since the 1990s to teach a couple of elective classes in film studies and podcasting. But once she arrives, she finds herself drawn back to the many questions she has about the murder of her roommate, Thalia, at the end of their junior year. The athletics coach, a black man called Omar, was convicted of Thalia’s murder and has spent twenty-five years in prison. But Bodie never thought he did it – and now she’s back at Granby, she realises that she may be able to find the evidence to prove it.

At first glance, I Have Some Questions For You might seem like yet another #MeToo novel, and I’m sympathetic to readers who see it that way (I had similar complaints about Kate Reed Petty’s True Story and Winnie M Li’s Complicit). However, I think Makkai’s take on the topic both rises above most of the rest and is doing something a bit different. First, I Have Some Questions For You is clearly not only in conversation with #MeToo but with the ‘true crime’ genre, its potential and its pitfalls – it turns out that my guess that it might ‘resonate with Becky Cooper’s non-fiction account of a murder at Harvard, We Keep The Dead Close‘ was spot on. Second, it’s something of a meta #MeToo novel in that Bodie constantly reflects on how the same stories keep getting told about murdered and sexually assaulted women, and yet nothing ever changes: ‘The story was on MSNBC, too. The one where the judge said the swimmer was so promising. The one where the rapist reminded the judge of himself as a young rapist. It was the one where her body was never found. It was the one where her body was found in the snow. It was the one where he left her body for dead under the tarp.’ Third, it’s just a really well-written book: incredibly gripping, but with nuanced, interesting characterisation that isn’t sacrificed for the sake of extra drama.

However, what I really loved about I Have Some Questions For You was its treatment of Bodie, and the way she constantly reassesses her adolescent self and her memories of her time at Granby. It’s basically a cross between Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Preptwo other brilliant novels with this intelligent, observant quality. I don’t think I’ve read a novel other than Prep that is so good at capturing the things that matter when we’re adolescents, how hard it is to get a grip on how others see us and yet how fervently we feel we know exactly where we are in the pecking order. But because, unlike Prep, Makkai has the older Bodie explicitly reflect on her adolescent self from the vantage point of adulthood, we really get to see how she reassesses her own narratives. As a teenager, Bodie was continually sexually harassed and stalked by one of her classmates, Dorian, who pretended that she was obsessed with him and publicly humiliated her on multiple occasions, as well as flashing her and groping her. She wrote this off in adulthood as just school bullying, but it’s clear that it was profoundly traumatising. Here, Makkai also gets us to reflect on what we consider to be ‘serious’, and how things that happen between children and young people at school are often seen as less serious than when an older adult is involved.

I Have Some Questions For You inevitably sidelines Omar’s story to focus on Bodie’s, given that she is the narrator, although it is acutely aware that he is the biggest victim, save Thalia. However, Bodie is not the rich white woman taking a prurient interest in this case that the press paint her as in the novel. She is the survivor of a traumatic childhood (father and brother dead, mum checked out) that became knotted into her feelings about Thalia’s murder in ways she untangles throughout the narrative. She’s undoubtedly a flawed character, but that doesn’t make her an unsympathetic one, and it’s the richness of her characterisation that distinguishes this from many other novels of its kind. So: a #MeToo novel, yes, but one that’s about so much more as well.

Editor’s Note: The Carol Shields Prize was inaugurated in 2020 in the author’s honour – the largest English-language literary prize for non-binary and women authors of novels, short story collections and graphic novels published in the USA and Canada. The shortlist will be announced on April 9th.

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Laura’s blog can be found here where versions of these reviews first appeared.

C Pam Zhang, Land of Milk and Honey (Hutchinson Heinemann, 2023). 978-1529153668, 232pp.,hardback. BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P).

Rebecca Makkai, I Have Some Questions For You (Fleet, 2023). 978 0349727233, 438pp., paperback original. BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P).

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