Fiction – paperback; Giramondo; 92 pages; 2019. Translated by Duncan M. Campbell.
A book set in New Zealand, written by a Chinese woman, translated by a scholar from New Zealand, and published by a small independent press in Australia, Huo Yan’s Dry Milk has all the trademarks of an unusual book.
Easily read in one sitting, it’s a tautly written tale of a Chinese immigrant whose three decades in Auckland has not lived up to the ambitions that drove him to begin a new life in a foreign country.
John Lee, once a librarian in Beijing, has spent the past decade running an antiques shop in his adopted city of Auckland. It’s the kind of rundown, overstocked business that people only visit to escape the rain.
He is married to a woman who is seriously disabled and remains nameless throughout the story. He only married her as a means to escape China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution when it was discovered she had distant relatives in New Zealand. He treats her with cruelty and disdain, using her as a prop in his shop to prey on the kindness of customers.
He placed a glass jar on the counter beside her and made up a sign that read: ‘HELP THE MENTALLY DISABLED: PLEASE GIVE GENEROUSLY’. Taking out two crumpled ten-dollar notes from his pocket, he placed these in the jar, along with some coins. At the end of every day he would count the money in the jar, sometimes finding that as much as twenty dollars had been donated. At such times he would give the woman a peck on the cheek, as if to reward her, his dry lips brushing her withered skin.
Life holds little excitement for him beyond the occasional gossip session with others in the ex-pat Chinese community and his penchant for cooking elaborate Western meals, albeit on a tightly controlled budget.
When an opportunity arises to make a little money renting out the spare room in his house to an attractive young Chinese student, Jiang Xiaoyu, he takes it. But from the outset it’s clear his motives are nefarious, for he tells Jiang that his wife is his sister, then spends an inordinate amount of time spying on her, listening to her through the walls and cooking her meals in a bid to win her trust.
When yet another opportunity presents itself to make even more money, this time through an export business selling powdered milk to the Chinese (hence the title of the book), John Lee grabs this too — though it does take him some time to decide whether he can afford to do so. But the scheme, along with the student who lives in his house, is not everything that it appears to be…
The human cost of greed
Dry Milk is a dark tale about identity, community and greed. As a portrait of Auckland, it fails to portray the city in a friendly, accepting light. John Lee regards it as a “slow city” offering little opportunity, and even though he has connections with the proactive Chinese Community Hope Association (and is later nominated for an executive officer role), he struggles to fit in.
The narrative is underpinned by a creepy air of dislocation, alienation, voyeurism and misogyny. There are no likeable characters here, but their flaws, foibles and weaknesses are all-too-human. When John Lee finally gets his (violent and disturbing) comeuppance, it’s hard to know whether to cheer or feel pity for him.
There’s no doubt that Dry Milk is an exceptionally well-crafted story by a skilful writer. Powerful and thought-provoking, it looks at the human cost of treating others as commercial opportunities and leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth. I won’t forget it in a hurry
This is my 5th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter and my 19th for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought my copy from my local independent book store last August for $22.95.