Dry Milk by Huo Yan traces the decisions of John Lee, a lonely, dissatisfied Chinese migrant, as his precarious existence in Auckland unravels. The novella’s mundane opening barely conceals a deep simmering rage. Lee refers to his wife, who has cognitive disability, as “the woman”, snaps at Pasifika customers at the supermarket, and has nightmares about his second-hand junk shop being repossessed. He is scraping by, choked with insecurity and regret. The dread builds as Lee becomes obsessed with international student Jiang Xiaoyu and sinks his savings into a scheme to export powdered milk to China.
Huo’s prose, crisply translated by Duncan M. Campbell, is spare and fast-paced. A face pressed against a window becomes “an egg stuck to a wok”. The city’s streetlights, mirroring Lee’s isolation, are “arrogant and aloof”, each refusing to allow its light to mingle with that of others. Auckland’s wind and rain add to the gloom. Campbell’s light touch, aided by the setting, makes for a seamless read.
Lee’s begrudging, competitive friendship with Uncle Wang, his involvement with the Chinese Community Hope Association and his unexpected enthusiasm for Chinese philosophy offer pops of levity while flashbacks to the Cultural Revolution reveal underlying traumas. Huo plays with her reader’s sympathy, offering glimpses of Lee’s humanity even as she strips it away. Dry Milk’s promising elements are let down, however, by its singular viewpoint and gratuitous ending.
Huo’s male characters, no matter how fleeting their interaction with Lee, are portrayed with depth. In contrast, Lee’s wife is a plot device – he marries her to leave China – while Jiang is relentlessly objectified. In the novella’s two depictions of rape, the reader’s horror is further heightened by having to observe the callous violence from the perpetrator’s perspective. The closing scene is true to Lee’s character – a redemptive arc would have been hollow – but it leaves a bitter aftertaste.
A discomforting page-turner written in atmospheric prose, Dry Milk is a dramatic study in betrayal. Still, Huo’s expert replication of the male gaze, down to the smothering of female agency, is ultimately disappointing. In focusing on Lee’s interiority and humanising a rapist at the expense of his victims, the narrative teeters dangerously close to victim-blaming territory.
Giramondo, 112pp, $22.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 3, 2019 as "Huo Yan, Dry Milk". Subscribe here.