Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 4, 2019

Dry Milk, by Huo Yan, translated by Duncan M Campbell

Although I’ve read a fair few books by Chinese authors by now, hardly any of them have been by women, and I’ve often wondered whether this is in part a consequence of the One-Child policy which has resulted in a gender imbalance.  Since this must surely impact on the lives of women in China in ways we can hardly imagine, it would be really interesting to read their domestic fiction but it’s not easy to find much that appeals.  (I follow the China Fiction Club on Twitter, but I rarely find anything there.  The Asian Review of Books is more helpful IMO).

Anyway…

Born in 1987 and based in Beijing, Huo Yan is a writer of novels, short stories, screenplays and criticism.  She has a PhD in Contemporary Literature, and in 2013 she held a residency in New Zealand, where one of the conditions of the award was that she had to write a story in a Kiwi setting.  Dry Milk is the result, and it’s a very interesting novella indeed.

It’s the story of John Lee, a character who twists a reader’s sympathies one way and another until the final macabre conclusion.  A librarian forced to preside over the destruction of Chinese literature during the Cultural Revolution,  he cynically marries a woman who offers him a means of escape.  She, always named merely as ‘the woman’ in the story, is intellectually disabled as a result of her parents’ suicide: she was the sole survivor when they gassed themselves and the Chinese authorities are only too glad to be rid of her when they find that she has distant relations in New Zealand.

Over thirty years Lee makes a life for himself as a trader in second-hand goods in Auckland.  It is a charmless life: he is brutal to his docile wife, and treats her with disdain.  He is an outsider amongst both the Kiwi and local Chinese, and cares for nothing except making money.

Into the emptiness of this life come two new characters: a beautiful shy young student who boards with him, and an entrepreneur who wants him to invest in the booming export market for powdered milk.  (Both New Zealand and Australia export powdered milk to China where consumers don’t trust the safety of the locally produced product).  Lee forms a really creepy attachment to Jiang Xiaoyu, eavesdropping on her every movement through the walls, fondling her underwear in her absence and doping his wife so that she becomes an even more ghostly presence in the house.  At the same time as the reader is confronted by this repulsive behaviour, Ye Xiaosheng’s investment scheme seems more and more dubious: Lee hands over his life savings on trust, and then is asked for more.  The reader recognises these warning signs, but Lee does not. He is too preoccupied by his obsession with the girl.

The façade which masked his alienation and loneliness falls apart in a shocking conclusion which offers interesting possibilities for discussion.

The press release that came with the book tells me that Dry Milk was shortlisted for a major prize in China and was selected as one of the best novellas of the year. It is an absorbing tale—I couldn’t put it down and read it in a single sitting.  But it is very dark, and it raises questions about the female author’s decision to narrate the story from the perspective of a man who is both victim and perpetrator.  The undercurrent of suppressed anger about the violence of the Cultural Revolution is coupled with Lee’s humiliation about the sordid way in which exile in New Zealand was achieved, and the example of a cross-cultural marriage which goes horribly wrong hints that Auckland is not as welcoming of its migrant community as Jacinda Ardern likes to imply.

I’d love to read a novel by this author so I’m hoping that Dry Milk gets the attention it deserves and further translations become available in due course…

Theresa has also reviewed this novel at Theresa Smith Writes.

Author: Huo Yan
Title: Dry Milk
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2019, 112 pages
First published as Li Yuehan in 2013
ISBN: 9781925336993
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available from Giramondo Publishing, from Fishpond: Dry Milk, and all good bookstores.


Responses

  1. It sounds absorbing, and as I was reading your review, those questions you posed at the end had been popping up in my mind.

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    • There’s a review at The Saturday Paper (which I can’t retrieve because I’ve read my one free right to access for the month) which suggests she is victim-blaming the women in her story, but I don’t see it quite like that. I won’t give away spoilers, but it seems to me that almost everyone is a victim, and focussing only on the victimhood of the women is a denial of the psychological damage done by the Cultural Revolution and exile. But that would be one of the issues to tease out in a discussion about this book: it’s complicated, especially by the multiple audiences for it i.e. Chinese readers in China (who are, of course, bound by censorship), Chinese readers in NZ, and the Kiwi readers who set up the residency with the expectation that a story set in NZ would be the result.

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      • I expect it wouldn’t be easy reading, due to those complexities. But I am interested in these symptoms of the Cultural Revolution, so I may try and read this at some time. I’ll look at that Saturday paper review, just for another perspective.

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        • I think there would be Chinese-Australians who lived through it, or have relations who did. For them, the memory of is would be as traumatic as, perhaps, the trauma of war service, with the added horror of the persecution being inflicted by their own country, and their own community, including sometimes their own family.

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      • I just discovered I am able to buy this in ebook from my preferred retailer for $5.70. So I did! Given that it’s a novella, I imagine I will squeeze reading it in quite easily during my lunch breaks at work. I always read ebooks then because they’re on my phone and I can whip it out any time.

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        • $5.70!!!!!!!!!
          That’s amazing. I can’t wait to see what you think of it:)

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          • Our only local bookshop is now closed, so our options are limited to a small section of the newsagents or a small section in Kmart. I will buy from Booktopia if I particularly want a physical copy of a book, but I’m leaning more towards ebooks because of their immediacy, and I don’t need to pay postage, or find room on my shelf.

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            • Just beware that you don’t forget about them. I only add books to my Want To Read shelf at Goodreads when I actually have the book (I have wishlists for the ones I want to read but don’t have) and when I add the Kindle purchases I always also shelve them as Kindle books – otherwise I forget all about them…

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  2. It is interesting she narrates this story from a man’s point of view. Have not heard of her.

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    • I think this is her first book in English translation.
      The press release says she’s written novels since this one, but I haven’t been able to find anything online about them.
      I wonder – just as is true in the English-speaking world – men mostly won’t read books with female central characters, so if she’s looking to sell the book in a predominantly male market (i.e. in mainland China because that’s where she’s based) maybe it was a strategic choice that also exposes the way women are treated…

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  3. I find it interesting that she wrote such a confronting story with a male protagonist, and suggest that it was a way for her to express fears about things she sees happening to women (or imagines happening to women) by imagining herself in the place of a man causing those fears.

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    • Ah yes, I hadn’t thought of that… and maybe a case of writing the book that a male writer should be writing, and isn’t….

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  4. […] 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 […]

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  5. […] novella: Dry Milk, by Huo Yan, translated by Duncan […]

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