Oysters, chocolate, cream and froth

7 months ago 82

The Chinese-American author C. Pam Zhang has followed up her Booker-longlisted debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold (2020), with what might be the most sensuous novel of the year. Zhang has said that her new book began as a “pandemic project”, describing it on social media as “a novel about food, female appetite, class, culinary hierarchy, and the sticky-sensual necessity of finding one’s own pleasure in a world gone to shit”.

The mark of the lockdown bears heavily on the text, not least in the nameless narrator’s recounting of “gray days and gray nights, no lovers no family no feasts no flights”. We are, in marked thematic contrast to Zhang’s debut – a retelling of the American West from the perspective of Chinese immigrants – in a dystopian near future in which food is disappearing. Our narrator is a Chinese-American chef lured to work in a colony of the super-rich on an Italian mountainside (referred to by a border guard as “Terra di latte e miele”). After she arrives, “it was the mountain’s private security that held me for hours, taking my passport, my retina scans, the measurements of my face and waist and earlobes, my blood, my phone, my photo”.

The colony is run by a sinister figure whom Zhang’s publisher has compared to Elon Musk. The narrator only ever refers to him as “my employer”; he has a daughter called Aida who is “Twenty and brilliant and motherless”. (The text is littered with italics.) No one seems to know exactly what has happened to Aida’s Korean mother, except that she is dead.

Early on the narrator observes of her employer: “his gestures revealed themselves as stilted, self-conscious, his back rigid in the hypercorrect manner of those who studied confidence late”. He has precise instructions for his new employee: she must maintain a body mass index figure of between eighteen and nineteen, wear certain clothes and not speak while entertaining the exclusive groups of customers at the dinners.

The Bluebeard’s Castle quality of the colony is reminiscent of Chloe Hooper’s The Engagement (2013) – in which a London estate agent is lured to a strange farm near Melbourne – and, like Hooper, Zhang paints a convincing portrait of a central authority who is simultaneously terrifying and irresistible. Her narrator yearns to live beyond “my worth as ascribed to my Chineseness my Asianness my smallness my womanness my perpetual foreignness”.

There are enticing descriptions of food, both in its scarcity (California has become a desert: “No avocados, no strawberries, no almonds”) and in the baroque meals prepared on the mountain, including pomegranates, water buffalo and sea eel. And when the epicureanism takes an erotic turn, the result can be genuinely sexy, albeit borderline ridiculous:

I’d starved so long I feared my own hunger for a wolf at the door. She let out the muscled animal of my tongue. Panting, teeth small nipped stars, she switched off the light. In the slippery dark of her I dissolved, no troubled body or changed face, only this fall through touch, through taste, through scent and breath and pulsing absolution of night, and: Yes to oysters swollen through butter. Yes to thighs cooled on glass, my hand a hot knife between. Yes to prosciutto, its salt slick; to avocados bursting, ripe. Our teeth clanged. I tasted blood and chocolate. Yes to the fatthicksweet of it, to cream, to froth that rises, to the crunched lace of the ear and the tender behind the knee, to that join at the legs where she softened, dimpled, begged me to bite.

The author’s occasional disregard for syntax and headlong rush into feeling will not be to everybody’s taste. But most readers will delight in the alluring world that C. Pam Zhang has confected, complete with a soufflé cheesecake “a foot high, silky yellow, sighing under the knife. Like nothing I’d tasted before. Part air, part kiss of milk and honey”. I, for one, found it irresistible.

Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a freelance writer, editor and critic. She writes for the SpectatorProspect and the Evening Standard, among other publications

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