Book Review: Dry Milk by Huo Yan

Dry Milk…

About the Book:

John Lee is a migrant from Beijing who has lived in Auckland for three decades. Formerly a librarian, he leads an increasingly lonely and misanthropic life, reduced to selling second-hand goods, and living in a marriage of convenience with his disabled wife, whom he treats with contempt. When he becomes infatuated with a young student who lodges in their house, and puts his life savings behind a scheme to export powdered milk to China, the dubious balance with which he has held his life together comes apart, and feelings of alienation and humiliation turn to violent obsession.

Dry Milk is a work of fiction that gives, through its unmoored narrator, a uniquely dark perspective on Antipodean culture. The story of an immigrant alienated from his new home, both its New Zealand and Chinese communities, Huo Yan’s novella is a stark portrait of social isolation, and of the experience of some of those who left China after the Cultural Revolution.

My Thoughts:

I came upon this novella, Dry Milk, via this review over at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, which piqued my interest. In addition to Lisa’s commentary, there was something about the description and cover which drew me in, and also, I’d never before read a Chinese translation, and this was written by a young Chinese woman too, which intrigued me further. There’s a lot packed into this slim book and I was gripped from the beginning through to the end, absorbing it all within the one day. Huo Yan writes with a style that is at once easy to slip along with. We’re in the one perspective for the entire novella, but through telling dialogue and minute observational scene setting, we glean so much more about John Lee and his life.

John Lee is a migrant from Beijing, living in Auckland for the last 30 years. When the novella opens, he is celebrating 30 years to the day of living in New Zealand. A former librarian who watched over the destruction of books during the Cultural Revolution, he came to New Zealand via dubious means. He volunteered to marry a woman – she has no name, is only ever referred throughout as ‘the woman’ – who had been left mentally disabled after being exposed to gas as an infant whilst her parents committed suicide. Foisted onto relatives, when it is discovered she has distant kin in New Zealand, plans are set in motion to send her there. John Lee decides this is just the ticket: marry her and get a visa to New Zealand out of it. He doesn’t care about her disability, and he only finds out after marrying her that she has been repeatedly raped. Not to be deterred, he adds one more rape to the poor woman’s tally on their wedding night. So, thirty years on, living in Auckland, we meet John Lee. He’s a miserly old man, alternating between indifference and cruelty towards his wife. He is beyond cheap, running an antiques/second hand dealership, shopping only right before closing so he can buy his fresh food after it’s been marked down. He seasons his food with condiments fished out of the rubbish decades earlier from when he first moved into his house – they belonged to the previous owner. John Lee lives an emotionally isolated existence. He interacts with other Chinese locals, but only on the surface, never forming any true friendships. He is racist towards Maori New Zealanders and seems to have nothing but thinly veiled disdain for Westerners. He is a man adrift: unable to return to China and uneasy in New Zealand.

Two things happen to John Lee in tandem to upset the quiet order and heavy screen of privacy he has cultivated. He lets a young Chinese woman into his house as a boarder and he accepts a business proposal to export dry milk from New Zealand into China. Apparently this is a booming line of business, with Chinese consumers not trusting the quality and hygiene of local products. So, it seems like a legit deal. John Lee becomes obsessed with his new boarder, acting in particularly creepy and strange ways as time goes on. He’s not really paying attention to what’s going on right under his own nose. He fails to question coincidence and we can see the writing on the wall long before he does. It was really interesting to experience John Lee as a character. Huo Yan has created a man who is both victim and perpetrator. We are repelled by him, disgusted, horrified even; yet, he is an old man who is being swindled out of thirty years of savings. He witnessed atrocities during the Cultural Revolution and was forced into participating in acts that went against his nature. I’ve rarely felt such a contrasting force of push and pull regarding a character. I despised him, yet I wanted to warn him. As he descends further into his obsession, we have to bear witness to some shocking scenes. For me, these seemed to sharply draw into focus John Lee’s ability to dehumanise those who were around him. A legacy of his experiences during the Cultural Revolution, perhaps. As an aside, we also bear witness to an undercurrent of racism towards Chinese people in Auckland. An associate of John Lee is beaten to death by his Western son-in-law whilst attempting to defend his daughter against the violence raining down on her from her husband. There are other instances mentioned, encounters and gossip passed, that all point to an intolerance prevalent that is contrary to public image.

At the end of this novella, we see an aged Chinese woman, who has been abused and misused, dismissed and discarded, for her entire life, rise up in the defence of a younger Chinese woman. The power of this ending moved me greatly, particularly taken within the context of this novella being written by a young Chinese woman, a member of the generation once removed from the Cultural Revolution, born during the decades of China’s one child policy – that which prized boys and discarded girls. A very powerful ending, indeed.


About the Author:

Born in 1987, Huo Yan is a writer of novels, short stories, screenplays and criticism. She began writing at the age of 13 and won her first literary prize at the age of 14. She is the author of eight books, and her work has been published in magazines including Harvest, October and Beijing Literature. She holds a Doctorate of Contemporary Literature. In 2013, she held the Rewi Alley Fellowship at the Michael King Writers Centre in Auckland, and wrote Dry Milk. She lives in Beijing.

Dry Milk
Published by Giramondo Publishing
Released July 1st 2019 (first published 2013)

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Dry Milk by Huo Yan

  1. Wow, what an impressive review… I agree entirely about the way this book operates on us as readers. In fact, this thought triggered by what you’ve written… it’s almost as if we the readers are being made to experience the disconnect that Chinese people felt during the Mao years: they had to condemn people, artefacts, books and political ideas that were inimical to the communist regime because they were capitalist, then during the cultural revolution they had to do it all over again, to people that Mao disapproved of for different reasons because he said were the wrong sort of communists.
    Perhaps it’s not coincidence that this book makes us feel conflicted. I haven’t read many Chinese authors who are actually living and writing in China, but I’ve noticed that they do seem to have clever ways of writing political and historical criticism without falling foul of the censors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read the review of this book in The Saturday Paper but I didn’t entirely agree with them, particularly regarding the ending, of which I think they missed the point.
      Chinese authors would have to be so careful! Perhaps they have a secret club where they test their writing within to ensure it passes censorship.
      I do think you can draw those parallels about the disconnective experience of the Maoist regime and then the Cultural Revolution. It would be an internal defensive mechanism, a way of preserving your inner morality, or even sanity.
      I think this is a deeply thought provoking novella and you could really mine it as a study if you were so inclined. It just goes to show that a book doesn’t have to be a tome to make a point or impact!


  2. Pingback: Dry Milk, by Huo Yan, translated by Duncan M Campbell | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  3. Oooooh this sounds SO GOOD! This review made me think it might be in the same vein as Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist Of The Floating World – told from one perspective, but SO CLEVERLY that the reader gets a really comprehensive and clear-eyed view of an aging man’s true nature. I’ll be seeking this one out, thank you!!

    Liked by 1 person

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