In the Kitchen, by Monica Ali
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Published: August 6, 2009
IN THE KITCHEN
By Monica Ali
436 pp. Scribner. $26.99
Although she’s still in the early stages of her career, Monica Ali’s main themes are already coming into focus. “In the Kitchen,” like her wildly successful first novel, “Brick Lane,” takes on multicultural, postcolonial Britain. What does it look and sound like? Who gets included? What are its prospects?
In the Victorian era, writers like Benjamin Disraeli and Elizabeth Gaskell wrestled with such questions in the “condition of England” novel. Ali, an upper-middlebrow traditionalist, follows in their footsteps. In “Brick Lane” she explored, with comic gusto and pathos, the Bangladeshi immigrants and British no-hopers living in Tower Hamlets, an East London housing project. This time around, she ties her story to two self-contained social structures that allow her to trace Britain’s fault lines: the busy kitchen of a hotel restaurant in central London, where Gabriel Lightfoot, her main character, is executive chef, and an old mill town in the north of England, where Gabriel’s dying father has worked all his life.
Gabriel’s kitchen is immigrant Britain on display. “Every corner of the earth was represented here,” he reflects at one point. “Hispanic, Asian, African, Baltic and most places in between.” These are the drones who toil unseen in glittering London, desperate strivers, many with horrible stories to tell, or forget. As the novel begins, a Ukrainian kitchen worker turns up dead in one of the hotel’s subterranean passageways. His former lover, a sullen, waiflike pot-scrubber named Lena, becomes Gabriel’s personal reclamation project and his entryway to the underground economy, a shadowy world of illegal immigration schemes, slave labor and forced prostitution. This is the new Britain.
The old Britain doesn’t look much better. The fiery furnaces and satanic mills that terrorized Carlyle and Dickens barely exist. “Great Britain,” Gabriel’s father remarks, “no one says that anymore. . . . We’ve lost the ‘Great.’ Know what else we’ve lost? Britishness. People keep talking about it. That’s how you know it’s gone.”
Ali, who has a wonderful ear for Britain’s welter of new speech patterns, makes her shrewdest points by giving her characters free rein to argue back and forth about the tangled issues of race, culture and progress. A maddeningly flexible Labour politician, one of Gabriel’s backers in a new restaurant venture, delivers a splendid oration showing that, depending on how you look at it, Britain has either shed its dead industrial skin to become a dynamic knowledge-based economy or put over a colossal fraud. Ignore the New Labour spin, he says, and you see a nation that no longer makes anything, a “gigantic casino spinning speculators’ money, while asset-stripping vultures shred company pension schemes and turn the few remaining factories into luxury flats and shopping malls.”
The brilliant debates animate an otherwise meandering, overstuffed narrative that, for long stretches, goes nowhere in particular. With Zola-esque diligence, Ali plunges the reader into the workings of a professional kitchen and the arcana of the weaver’s trade. These seminars become tedious, as does Gabriel, whose personal problems are largely irrelevant to the novel’s more serious concerns. Obsessive, narcissistic and vacillating, he offers yet another variation on the commitment-shy modern male. About custard he holds firm opinions. Everything else flummoxes him. His long-suffering girlfriend, a mildly talented nightclub singer who would dearly love to settle down, dangles at the end of his string while he worries his small but growing bald spot with a neurotic forefinger. Dither, dither.
Gabriel is a small man on a big stage. By the novel’s end, he looks minuscule, a pipsqueak tyrant screaming for the reader’s attention. The temptation is overwhelming to slam the book shut and squash him like a bug.
William Grimes is a domestic correspondent for The Times. His latest book, “Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York,” will be published in October.
By Sukhdev Sandhu
Published: 2:43PM BST 30 Apr 2009
In the Kitchen
by Monica Ali
Poor Monica Ali. Three books into her career and her publisher is already rewriting her history, describing her new novel, In the Kitchen, as a “brilliant follow-up to Brick Lane”. We’ll come to whether it’s “brilliant” in a moment, but first: “follow-up”? What happened to Alentejo Blue (2006) a collection of interrelated short stories set in a village in southern Portugal?
Admittedly, some readers, captivated by her fine-grained account of Bangladeshi migrants in east London might have been surprised by her choice of location and subject matter, but it’s bizarre that her own publishing house wants to erase that book from her bibliography. Ali has run into a problem faced by many writers: she’s assumed to have “home turf” from which editors and accountants are eager for her not to stray. She’s being treated, deliberately or not, as the mouthpiece for neighbourhoods and ethnic demographics of which she has never claimed to be a member.
In the Kitchen, then, marks a return to the contemporary London with which she, as much as writers such as Zadie Smith, Iain Sinclair and Will Self, have now become staples of university syllabi. It represents a shift to the west – from Whitechapel to Piccadilly – where, in the kitchen of the Imperial Hotel, a place described as “part prison, part lunatic asylum, part community hall”, an executive chef named Gabriel Lightfoot tries to whip into line a staff force whose members are drawn from all across the world.
This is, in some ways, a post-imperial hotel. It’s a low-paid hub for refugees and adventurers from India, Somalia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Eastern Europe. These men and women are invisible to the affluent guests staying in the establishment, and largely invisible to the rest of London, too. However, they will, at least in outline, be familiar to anyone who has seen Dirty Pretty Things (2002), directed by Stephen Frears, with whose grimy, subterranean milieu and thriller-orientated plot this novel shares a striking resemblance.
Gabe is 42 and teetering on the verge of a midlife crisis. He would like his own restaurant, a dream which, helped by a New Labour MP and a slightly skewy businessman, he may be on the verge of realising. He’d also like to marry his girlfriend Charlie, a red-haired singer at clubs that are far from upmarket.
All of these plans are disturbed and affected by the sudden death of a Ukrainian porter in the cellars beneath his kitchen. Police investigations throw up nothing conclusive, but Gabe is led to believe a mysterious Belarussian woman called Lena may know something important.
Soon, in cold and borderline-truculent fashion, she tells him about how she has been forced to become a prostitute by human traffickers and that the lives of the people closest to her will be endangered if he alerts the authorities. Soon, too, for reasons not at all explicable, he puts her up in his flat and is sleeping with her.
Intercut with this highly dramatic story is a quieter one, probably belonging to another novel, that involves Gabe regularly visiting his dying father in Lancashire. They talk a lot, mainly – oddly given the circumstances – about race, migration, national identity and the waning of community.
These sections would be more compelling if the dialogue between father and son were realistic. But here, as throughout the book, dollops of didactic and clunky exposition are combined with lines half-inched from episodes of The Bill and passages of insipid mushiness: “She had not believed him when he said that he loved her,” Ali writes about Lena and Gabe. “Well, she had been right. But he loved her now, pure and true. If he had loved her before it was only the blue flicker and red crackle, not this still white heart of the flame.”
Ali appears to have researched the working lives of hotel kitchen staff. But she can’t make them come alive, having a Frenchman sound like a rodent in the film Ratatouille and describing a Moldovan, in blunt and reductive style, as speaking “in a stupid American accent”. Meanwhile, Gabe, the centre of the novel, is in every respect an unbelievable and unpleasing character. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (2000) and Imogen Edwards-Jones’s Hotel Babylon (2004) offer more insight, drama and laughter.
It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Ali is a middlebrow writer, and an essentially frothy one at that, whose “gritty” choices of subject matter have convinced people she’s writing literary fiction. At one point, Gabe and Charlie emerge from a cinema on Edgware Road: “Intelligent thriller appears to be a contradiction in terms,” the singer comments. Gabe replies: “Weren’t you thrilled? Clever plot. Give it that.” “Yes,” Charlie answers, “but that’s a bad thing. All plot, no story. Nothing unfolds, everything is forced.” If Ali ever gives up writing novels, she’d make a great critic.
Check into the Imperial Hotel at your peril
Sunday 3 May 2009
In the Kitchen by Monica Ali, Doubleday,
In the Kitchen is described in the press release, not quite accurately, as "the follow-up to Brick Lane". Monica Ali's hugely successful debut novel was set among the Bangladeshi community of London's East End and brought to life with comic exuberance the trials of immigrant life in modern Britain. Ali then wrong-footed her readers with her actual follow-up, Alentejo Blue, a slow-paced and elegant series of vignettes about an expat community in rural Portugal, so distant stylistically and geographically from the bustle of Brick Lane that it might almost have been written by a different author. She now returns to more familiar territory with In the Kitchen, which picks up Brick Lane's themes of national identity, belonging, family, loyalty and considers them against the shifting lives of London's migrant workers.
Nowhere is the sense of transience more acute than in a city hotel, and the Imperial Hotel in Piccadilly – Ali's setting – embodies that impermanence: "If the Imperial were a person ... you would say here is someone who does not know who she is." Stephen Frears made use of a similar setting in his 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things, which depicted the world of illegal workers as a perfect breeding ground for crime. Though not so dark, Ali's hotel also fosters an underclass desperate to scam whatever it can on the side and keep below the authorities' radar. When the dead body of a night porter is discovered in the basement, the investigating officer's first announcement is: "I'm not interested in your papers."
Gabriel Lightfoot, the Imperial's executive chef, presides over "a United Nations task force all bent to their work". At 42, his life is on the cusp of change: he has backers ready to finance his dream of opening his own restaurant and he has proposed to his girlfriend, Charlie. But with the discovery of the dead porter, Gabe's certainties begin to unravel. The shadowy figure of Lena, a young eastern European girl enigmatically connected with the death, begins to haunt him; she claims to have been trafficked and Gabe offers her refuge. He learns that his father has terminal cancer, and returns home to the dying Lancashire mill town of his childhood to hear some uncomfortable family secrets; the financiers begin to get cold feet; Charlie learns of his affair with Lena and walks out.
Through the prism of Gabe's crisis, Ali deftly portrays a nation that, like the hotel, is losing its sense of self. The solid, working-class, northern racism of Gabe's family offends his metropolitan sensibilities, but the sense of nostalgia for a more cohesive community is poignant. In a prescient scene, given that this novel is set in the days when you could smoke in bars, Gabe worries about the fragility of a debt-based economy, and Fairweather, the New Labour junior minister backing the restaurant, smoothly reassures him that this is not the issue: "Can you ride it, whatever it is? That's what you should be asking."
Above all, this is a novel about the world of work – how it has changed and how it defines us. Ali has chosen a workplace that, though familiar through television shows, remains fascinating, and the kitchen scenes are superb. Too often, elsewhere, there is a sense that characters exist as mouthpieces for opposing views of modern Britain. The mystery surrounding the porters death loses its tension in all the digression and there is something cartoonish about writing regional accents phonetically (Frenchmen who say "zis" and Caribbean women who call everyone "darlin"). Though Ali's prose is often beautiful and there are flashes of Brick Lane's buoyant comedy, Gabe's disintegration never quite engages the reader, who is left feeling better informed but oddly unaffected.
Christopher Tayler samples Monica Ali's cook's tale
Saturday 18 April 2009
In the Kitchen by Monica Ali, Doubleday,
Hotels are fruitful settings for fiction. Like theatres, they come with a built-in set of contrasts: front-of-house grandeur versus backstage seediness, institutional permanence versus transient personnel. They can act as reminders that none of us is a permanent resident on this earth, as in Ali Smith's Hotel World. Or they can stand in for larger living arrangements, as the Majestic Hotel in JG Farrell's Troubles comes to stand in for the Anglo-Irish ascendancy and the British empire in general. With their intricate hierarchies and overlapping jurisdictions, hotel staffs are an attractive prospect for a novelist too, offering all the advantages of a small, enclosed community with the bonus of a window on a wider world through the presence of paying guests.
All this seems to have figured in Monica Ali's calculations when she planned her third novel, In the Kitchen. The kitchen in question belongs to "Jacques", the restaurant of the Imperial Hotel, an endlessly refurbished edifice near London's Piccadilly Circus. Built by mutton-chopped Victorian businessmen, and now owned by a multinational corporation, the Imperial functions as a none too subtle reflection of the country's changing face. Interchangeable agency workers of doubtful immigration status do the menial work, while the kitchen - "part prison, part lunatic asylum, part community hall" - is staffed by a cross-section of the London labour market: a soft-spoken Liberian refugee, an inscrutable Russian émigré, a self-improving Indian cook and so on. (For comic relief, there's also a melancholy pastry chef with a heavy French accent.) Gabriel Lightfoot, the executive chef, is one of the few English-born people in the place. "If the Imperial were a person," he thinks, "you would say here is someone who does not know who she is."
"Gabe", as he mostly calls himself, turns out to be having an identity crisis of his own, although it takes a long time to manifest itself. Aged 42, and worried about his bald spot, he has a number of projects in hand, all of which set him up as someone heading for a fall. Being head chef means spending more time on administration than cooking, and also involves him in endless fraught meetings with creepy management types. When not dealing with them, or trying to mediate between his squabbling underlings, he advances his secret plans for his own restaurant, which he's planning to open with the financial backing of an unpredictable businessman and a media-friendly MP. He also has vague plans to marry his girlfriend, a red-haired singer who's variously described as "plump-skinned" and "lovely as a summer's day". Finally, he means to spend more time with his father, a former industrial weaver who's now dying of colorectal cancer in Lancashire.
Ali tries to give Gabe's problems a dramatic shape by tying his growing sense of crisis to a death that takes place in the cellars beneath his kitchen. One day Yuri, a Ukranian porter he's barely noticed before, is found down there in a pool of blood. During the police investigation, Gabe locks eyes with a porter named Lena, a skinny young woman from Belarus who seems to know more about Yuri than she's saying. Implausibly abruptly (Ali gives him a fever to smooth out this difficult transition), Gabe has installed her in his flat, begun learning her story of human trafficking and abuse, and developed an unreciprocated sexual obsession. Here the reader starts expecting his world to unravel in tandem with his horrified investigation of the market mechanisms supplying him with workers. Before that happens, though, the novel piles up background and non-dramatic incident in a way that broadens its thematic range at the expense of narrative drive.
In the Kitchen works best as a novel about work. Ali has done her homework on restaurant kitchens and weaving, and uses both as sustained metaphors for contrasting visions of society: the cohesive social fabric nostalgically remembered by Gabe's father and his peers, and the melting pot of Gabe's kitchen in the contemporary world of deregulated labour. Perhaps, the New Labour MP suggests, British identity has itself been marketised: "We talk about the multicultural model but it's really nothing more than laissez-faire . . . Britishness is or has become essentially about a neutral, value-free identity." In this scheme of things, resentment of immigrants - which plays a part in Gabe's working-class Lancashire childhood as well as the exploitative employment practices documented elsewhere in the book - arises in part from envy of clear-cut cultural identities and the presumed social solidarity of immigrant communities. "Fuck you," Gabe thinks at a veiled woman in the street, "for having what I don't."
Unfortunately, these sociological musings are only very cursorily dramatised, being plonked in the mouths of mostly one-note characters: the social Darwinian businessman, the cynically charming MP, the deterministic Russian, the man of working-class rectitude. The dialogue is often clumsily expository, and Ali has trouble mixing Gabe's thoughts with his actions, generally falling back on describing them in alternating paragraphs. But the main problem is the central character himself, who's wooden and oddly characterless in spite of his potentially attention-grabbing attributes, which include a troubled childhood, a propensity to mania and compensatory interest in high-precision French cooking. At no point does the reader believe that this static, passive figure has within himself the passions the plot requires of him. Combined with Ali's humdrum writing, he does fatal damage to a state-of-the-nation novel of commendable ambition - an interesting set of ideas deflated in the execution.
Heat and lust in the melting pot
Friday, 1 May 2009
Just over half way through Monica Ali's third novel, Gabriel Lightfoot, executive chef of the fictional Imperial Hotel on London's Piccadilly, has his first funny turn and the book starts to take off. Up to this point, though we've never once moved out of Gabriel's consciousness, we hardly know him. Not surprising, as he has no idea who he really is.
At 42, Gabe is enslaved by to-do lists that are never done. His rag-tag multinational staff irritate him, his bald patch worries him, and his greasy and unprincipled managers enrage him. Biding his time, he is secretly setting up his own restaurant with a couple of equally unprincipled partners. Meanwhile, his father in the north is dying, and an illegal immigrant hiding in the hotel has been discovered dead in the basement and is now haunting his nightmares. Gabe loves his red-haired jazz singer girlfriend, but he has not told her about the mysterious Lena, an escaped sex slave and seriously damaged waif with whom he's having obsessive, guilty sex in the guise of protection.
Throughout the first part of the book, this uneasy constellation of circumstances nudges him slowly towards breakdown. The story is slight, the pace leisurely. This in itself is fine, but the characters are not developed enough to sustain it. It's very much a novel of ideas. Large swathes consist of people discussing such things as Britishness, but it's hard to escape the impression that certain characters are little more than mouthpieces. This is compounded by Ali's rampant overuse of stereotype: Oona the Jamaican with her gold tooth and constant laugh, the French pastry cook who talks like Inspector Clouseau.
Gabe's family is not exempt. Nana break into a few lines of "She's a lassie from Lancashire" lest we forget her credentials, and teenage niece Bailey writes emo poetry, "like about sad stuff, like pain, and how no-one understands us and that". This oversimplification is a shame because Ali is clearly concerned to show that for every faceless immigrant worker sustaining the British hospitality trade, there is a real individual. "Every refugee knows how to tell his story," says one, and many of them are truly heartbreaking.
It comes as a pleasant surprise when Gabe finally goes off the rails and Ali's prose begins to soar. Her descriptions of Gabe's dissociated states are excellent, and as he drifts away from his moorings, a tsunami of impressions overwhelms him and his identity begins to disintegrate. "He was in the bloodstream of the city that was in his blood... only a molecule, a protein speck in the city." He runs about the kitchen asking people to describe him in three words. "Tall. White. Male," someone says.
Gabe lacks substance and he knows it. Identity is a crucial theme. "What I can't get my head around," he says when his grandmother gets dementia, "is where is Nana? I mean, physically she's in her chair. But where's the person, the Nana that we knew?"
This identity crisis extends to the nation. "It's going to the dogs," says Gabe's dad, maintaining that the economy is a house of cards. "Bless him, no," a two-faced New Labour politician tells Gabe. "The economy is very, very strong, as the chancellor keeps telling us." Britain is as run-down as the once grand Imperial Hotel, and the statues of central London portray "men who had turned the course of history, and for whom it would never turn again." The old order is gone and the new does not know itself.
This is an ambitious book from a writer not content to revisit familiar territory. She takes risks that don't always succeed. In the Kitchen is too long (as Brick Lane was), the writing is inconsistent, with a surfeit of cliché, but it's a serious and intelligent, if ultimately unsuccessful attempt at tackling the state of the nation. Her best work is yet to come.
Carol Birch's latest novel is 'Scapegallows' (Virago)
A chef is troubled by the death of an employee. But how much do we really care about illegal labour?
Sunday, 31 May 2009
Chefs have not fared well in recent fiction. In Irvine Welsh's last-but-one novel, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, Alan De Fretais was about as appealing as the proverbial reheated soufflé. Marrow, by Tiffanie Darke, a former close friend of Gordon Ramsay, was about an arrogant, sex-obsessed (and entirely fictional) celebrity chef. So it is interesting to see how the bullying ignoramus of popular legend will appear, when given the light touch of Monica Ali.
Gabriel Lightfoot is executive chef at the once-grand Imperial Hotel in London's Piccadilly. He is a 42 year old with plans: open a classic French restaurant, marry Charlie, his red-headed, jazz-singer girlfriend, and spend more time with his family in Lancashire. But his life begins to fall apart after the accidental death of Yuri, a kitchen porter and illegal immigrant. The subsequent chain of events slowly exposes the fragility of Gabe's plans, his relationships and his whole identity. Plagued by nightmares and desperate for sleep, his search for any meaning in Yuri's death produces one of the best lines in the book, from the Russian commis chef, Nikolai: "The significance of Yuri's death is that it is so insignificant. That is why it is so troubling. That is why you dream."
This gets to the heart of the story Ali is trying to tell: that without families and friends with whom we share a history, relationships can become so ephemeral that it doesn't seem to matter whether a person lives or dies. Gabe presides over a multinational workforce of waiters, chefs and porters, but the hotel doesn't care about the former doctors and child soldiers it employs: every immigrant has a story which is irrelevant in the kitchen and Yuri's death is nothing more than a messy inconvenience.
The setting of the book is undeniably fascinating: the hidden world of Britain's illegal immigrants, who come and go without most people ever noticing they exist. But this novel is a missed opportunity. It is full of ideas that are not sustained by its characters, which makes it dense and frustrating in parts. The pace is unhurried and the story somewhat slight, neither of which would be a problem if you felt connected with the characters. But you don't. Some are inadequately developed, while others are unconvincing clichés. Just as Benny, a former soldier from Liberia, begins to draw you in, you find there are no more opportunities to understand him better.
All the while, Gabe's father is dying of cancer. Having escaped his dreary mill-town in search of Michelin stars, Gabe returns home for the first time in years and is forced to reconsider his version of childhood events. Some of Ali's most convincing dialogue is between Gabe and his sister, Jenny, as she shatters his memories of their mother as a fun-loving, spirited housewife whom his father oppressed. In truth, she had suffered from devastating bouts of depression and mania – something Gabe had never known.
There are moments of absorbing insight into Gabe's character, but not enough to sustain 400 pages. The last 100, in which Gabe's descent into madness speeds up, almost rescue the story. But this welcome change of pace comes too late; by this point, you still don't know Gabe well enough to care. Less believable still is his swift recovery: to have him go from full-blown manic to reflective grown-up in a matter of days somewhat undermines the truth of his experiences.
What made Ali's Brick Lane so engaging was the strength of the characters. None of the characters here get under the skin. This is a bold novel from an intelligent writer who is determined to explore difficult relationships and uncomfortable conditions in 21st-century Britain. Unfortunately, important issues aren't enough.
San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Whether she is writing about Bangladeshis in East London, as in her vivacious first novel, "Brick Lane" (2003), or Portuguese villagers struggling to hold their own against an influx of affluent tourists, as in her more subdued novel-in-stories, "Alentejo Blue" (2006), Monica Ali's focus is on the displaced.
Her issue-driven third novel, "In the Kitchen," concerns the uneasy lot of a multicultural brigade - a virtual "United Nations task force" - slaving in England's restaurant kitchens and produce fields. But it also considers native-born Englishmen who live and work among so many immigrants of such varied cultures that they, too, feel displaced and question what it means to be English.
One of Ali's characters, a member of Parliament, no less, comments, "Our so-called British identity is like our economy ... deregulated in the extreme."
From her debut, Ali has displayed lustrous prose and a dazzling ability to create an array of distinctive characters. While the characters in "In the Kitchen" are less fully realized, how apt that in a novel centered on a chef, a character "sieves" words through a smile, the autumn sun comes through in "shreds," and "Steam rose [from a stockpot] in a column and dispersed, like an idea that could find no words."
"In the Kitchen" attempts, with mixed success, to add taut plotting to Ali's already well-stocked literary larder. It opens with the discovery of a Ukrainian kitchen porter's corpse in the basement of the Imperial Hotel in Piccadilly - faded like the British Empire itself - which sets in motion a chain of events that throws the executive chef's life into upheaval.
Ali is not the first author to find a perfect backdrop for a tale of converging cultures in an intense, upscale restaurant kitchen. In Rose Tremain's enormously sympathetic 2008 novel, "The Road Home," an Eastern European widower immigrates to London to make enough money to support his mother and young daughter back home by working his way up from dishwasher to cook. Tremain's story, like Ali's, also features scenes on a farm tilled by illegal, near-slave laborers.
Ali tells her story of displacement, however, from the point of view of a native-born Englishman, the son of a textile factory foreman. Forty-two-year-old Gabriel Lightfoot is finally on the verge of marrying his longtime girlfriend and, with the help of two investors, starting his own restaurant.
But the porter's death - and the sad circumstances of his life - cause Gabriel to question many of his basic assumptions. Against his better judgment, he takes home a young Ukrainian waif who had been camping in the hotel basement with the porter, hiding from a pimp. He finds himself questioning her stories and his own, including his excuses for sleeping with her. "There is no truth. Is only a new kind of lie," Lena says dispassionately. She becomes "his irritant, his ache, his skinny girl ... his salvation, his ruin, or neither, but simply his release."
At work, Gabriel's bullying boss pressures him to keep an eye on the smarmy maitre d', rightly suspecting foul play. After his fiancee dumps him, Gabriel spends late nights probing not just Lena's sad saga but also those of his illegal kitchen workers - and finding a level of suffering, bravery and nobility that puts him to shame. Weighty conversations encompass free will versus destiny and truth versus lies.
Benny, from Liberia, tells about a "friend" conscripted as a child soldier who finally decided, after playing football with a woman's head, that he'd rather die than continue in his brutal life. The philosophical Nikolai, a lowly line chef, was an obstetrician in the Soviet Union who fled a 14-year prison sentence after blowing the whistle on factory pollutants that were causing birth defects.
Gabriel, under pressure that would cook a stew in minutes - and, not surprisingly, ends up stewing the cook - rushes between work, meetings with his backers and visits home to Blantwistle, where he needs to clear up several misunderstandings before his father dies of cancer. Ali avoids the food-porn pitfall - overly lavish descriptions of cuisine - but stretches passages about textile weaving, national identity and Gabriel's crackup to the fraying point.
Gabriel plans to serve "Classic French, a modern twist, cooked with precision" in his restaurant. Translated into literary terms, it's a fair description of what Ali herself dishes up in this rich, classically structured novel that tackles big social issues.
Heller McAlpin reviews books for The Chronicle, Newsday and other publications. E-mail her at email@example.com.
Monica Ali novel In the Kitchen proves a most satisfying spread
The Brick Lane author stays on roll with rich yarn set on the global migrant roads that lead to London restaurant kitchens
June 14, 2009
In the Kitchen
by Monica Ali
If you can't stand the heat, so the saying goes, get out of the kitchen. But that's exactly where Gabriel Lightfoot, executive chef of the Imperial Hotel in London, England, is most at home – at least until the temperature soars, on professional and personal fronts, and he begins to wilt.
Gabe is the beleaguered protagonist of Monica Ali's In the Kitchen, the British author's third novel, after her smash 2003 debut Brick Lane, which made the Booker Prize shortlist, and Alentejo Blue from 2006.
Ali's fat new novel offers plenty to chew on in terms of social issues, including the meaning of "Britishness" in this era of multiculturalism, the exploitation of illegal workers and the shift from a manufacturing-based economy to what one character calls sunrise industries and the knowledge economy.
It's also a gripping personal story that keeps readers guessing (and entertained) for much of the action. It also feeds into our current fascination with celebrity chefs and their high-end kitchens.
The narrative unfolds in flashback. We know from the opening line, which refers to "the point at which things began to fall apart," that it's not going to be a cakewalk.
Initially, the future looks promising for Gabe. At 42 and keen to prove himself, he plans to use his position at the Imperial (once grand, now struggling) as a stepping stone to opening his own restaurant, in partnership with a tough-minded businessman, Rolly, and a smooth-talking politician, Fairweather.
Gabe's undoing starts when a hotel porter, Yuri, is found dead in an unused basement office where he had secretly been living. Gabriel's boss, Mr. Maddox, offers his cynical take on the situation: "There isn't a problem. Unless ... unless it's going to turn up something else. I don't know why, but this is what happens in hotels. A screw falls out of a doorframe. Easy, you think, soon fix that, and just as you're giving it one last turn, that's when you notice the whole f---ing door is full of rot."
Prophetic words. Gabriel thinks he's got the situation (in fact, his life in general) under wraps, but a swarm of complications arise. Chief among these is Lena, a young woman from Belarus who he suspects was staying with Yuri. Gabe encounters her prowling the basement corridor. On impulse, and because he realizes she now has nowhere to go, he takes her home.
His motivation is part sympathy, part lust. Lured to Britain on the promise of legitimate employment, she was forced into prostitution and is now without resources. She manipulatively plays on his sympathies – or is it Gabe who is taking advantage of her? Despite his conflicted feelings, he falls into an affair with Lena that inevitably jeopardizes his relationship with his girlfriend, Charlie. (So much for his plans to marry her.)
To top it off, his father, a former mill worker with whom he has a strained relationship, is dying of cancer. A trek home to see his family in Blantwistle, a fictional town in northern England, brings up unresolved issues from the past and his working-class roots.
In other words, Ali piles a lot on Gabriel's plate. Half the fun of the novel is watching this Olympic-calibre control freak talk himself into believing that he has a firm grip on all these matters when he is actually heading for a gigantic meltdown.
Ali stuffs the narrative with comedy as well as poignancy, and many tasty bits of vivid characterization. Here's entrepreneurial Rolly: "His eyes were small and hard, with few eyelashes, and he blinked a great deal, as though in disbelief at the entire idiotic world".
At work, there's a steady diet of squabbles, crises and flare-ups in the kitchen, with its lively mix of nationalities (Eastern European, African, Indian) and temperaments.
On the personal front, Gabe struggles to sort out his confused feelings about Charlie and Lena, and deal with his family and the childhood memories that arise on his visits home. He begins to question his chosen path: "What if his life was a series of blunders based on misreadings, on misconceptions, on a series of childish mistakes?"
At one point, Gabe turns for advice to one of his kitchen staff, Nikolai, a doctor in his former life in the Soviet Union and now a whiz at chopping vegetables. Nikolai says: "Would you not agree that the biggest events in our lives are things that happen to us, rather than things that we decide to do?"
In the Kitchen is itself a mixture of "things that happen" to Gabe and the choices that he makes. Many of those choices lead him into situations (and to realizations) that are increasingly out of character for the Gabriel Lightfoot who eyes culinary stardom. Things fall apart, spectacularly.
But in many ways, Gabe ends up better off. He also becomes aware of the shadowy world of human trafficking and the challenges faced by immigrants imported as cheap manual labour.
Tracking a character's transformation is a classic narrative arc, of course. This sumptuous spread of a novel proves that Ali has the recipe down pat.
Barbara Carey writes the monthly Poetry column for these pages.
The Cuisine of Death
The story of a chef with a corpse on his hands.
By Marie Arana
Sunday, June 14, 2009
IN THE KITCHEN
By Monica Ali
Scribner. 436 pp.
When Monica Ali burst onto the scene in 2003 with her brilliantly imagined, nimbly fashioned, powerfully rendered "Brick Lane," critics marveled that a raw first novelist could produce such a Dickensian display of literary skill and human wisdom. The novel -- in which Nazneen, a teenage girl, travels from Bangladesh to London to seal an arranged marriage and wed a much older man -- was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and translated into dozens of languages. Monica Ali became an instant sensation, the darling of multicultural circles, a sure successor to Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie. Exposing the harsh world of immigrant sweatshops in East London, "Brick Lane" raised Muslim hackles and charmed the crustiest of literary critics. Germaine Greer denounced it. Prince Charles defended it. James Wood called it a great and daring literary achievement. The future seemed bright and boundless for Monica Ali.
Her second novel had a different trajectory: "Alentejo Blue," a string of loosely conjoined stories about English characters adrift in a Portuguese village, seemed listless and pale by comparison. Publishers Weekly called it "a dirge." "All too random," mourned Bookmarks. "Unrelentingly depressing," came the verdict in The Washington Post. According to Nielsen Bookscan, whereas "Brick Lane" had climbed U.S. bestseller lists and sold more than 200,000 copies, "Alentejo Blue" squeezed out a mere 6,000 in sales. If nothing else, Ali had proved she could shift gears. She had bucked the impulse to write the same book and pander to the market. She had left Bangladeshi neighborhoods, moved on.
In her latest novel, "In the Kitchen," Ali bravely moves on again. And, once more, she does so with mixed results.
The setting this time is the Imperial Hotel, a venerable but decaying London establishment. The hero is Gabriel Lightfoot, a middle-aged chef on the cusp of too many changes: His father, a retired North England mill-worker, is dying of cancer, yet Gabe's life seems poised for success. He is about to propose marriage. If he can hang on just a few more weeks, a bold career leap beckons. For all the obstacles a grueling life in the kitchen can offer, Gabe seems to have all the right instincts. He's made mostly good decisions. He knows what it takes to run a tight restaurant. He is in love with a green-eyed jazz singer who returns his affections. He has saved enough -- made enough contacts -- to leave the Imperial and open his own place.
But by the time we know this, a dead body lies in Gabe's way. "When he looked back," we read in the book's very first sentence, "he felt that the death of the Ukrainian was the point at which things began to fall apart." Yuri, the night porter, is found in the hotel's moldering basement, his bloody corpse a herald of more disaster to come. What follows will forever alter Gabriel Lightfoot's world.
So far, so good. It's a great start for a potboiler, an opening with all the ingredients: a hectic kitchen, a budding love, a possible murder and one man's simmering, rising ambition. Except that it takes 200 more pages for the heat to kick in.
Let's forget for a moment those first 10 or so chapters of endless verbiage. Before the story is over, the reader will encounter a prostitution ring, a tiny, birdlike lover, a tragic immigrant world that lies just beyond the walls of the grand Imperial. When all is fully told, no one will be exempted from that world. Least of all the flawed man at the center of the tale.
But Ali's novel creeps along like your grandmother's knitting. You wind through passages like this: "The walls were covered in fleur-de-lis wallpaper in a richly subtle color somewhere between silver and beige. . . . Overall the effect was not displeasing though somewhat precariously contrived. . . . A party of women -- polished skin, bouclé and velvet, liver-spotted hands -- set down their forks and exclaimed." It weaves ahead through clichés and repetitions, protracted and pointless conversations, until you reach page 150: The tiny, birdlike prostitute is now in Gabe's bed, the hotel manager is conducting shady business with housekeeping, our hero is spiraling into madness, his father is in cancerous freefall, and the beautiful jazz singer is fit to be tied.
Like flares in a night sky, those turns in the story urge you on. Then on page 241 you stumble on this arresting sentence: "London was all belly, its looping intestinal streets constantly at work, digesting, absorbing, excreting, fueling and refueling, shaping the contours of the land." You've gotten this far because you read "Brick Lane," believed that its author deserved her laurels, suspected this novel is worth your time. And here, finally, begins your reward. For the next 200 pages until you reach the last sentence, you won't be able to put the book down, turn off the light. Ali hits her stride.
If you're curious about contemporary literature, you'll read this overcooked novel. You'll skip through the sludge of the early chapters. You'll forgive Ali for going too far, breaking the rules: You'll overlook her narrator's weird lurch into madness (not allowed, unless your name is Dostoyevsky). You'll shrug off the repellent seductress (ill-advised, no matter who you are). You'll forget that there are too many cooks in the kitchen and not enough feasts on the table (where, oh where, is the monumental macaroni of Giuseppe di Lampedusa? Or the bright cheeses and crisp biscuits of Iris Murdoch?). Because, by the end, all the plates are spinning.
And then, voilà, there's dessert. --
Marie Arana, a former editor of Book World, is currently a Kluge Scholar at the Library of Congress. Her most recent novel is "Lima Nights."
Monica Ali's rowdy and crowded restaurant novel has its rewards, but there are too many ingredients to make it completely satisfying
Reviewed by Annabel Lyon
Last updated on Thursday, Jun. 25, 2009 05:02AM EDT
British writer Monica Ali was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1967, to an English mother and a Bangladeshi father. The family moved to Bolton, in Greater Manchester, when she was 3; she later studied at Oxford. Her first novel, Brick Lane, got her named as one of Granta magazine's Best of Young British Novelists in 2003 while the novel was still in manuscript; it was subsequently short-listed for a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize.
In the Kitchen, by Monica Ali, Scribner, 448 pages, $34
Brick Lane centres on Nazneen, a young Bangladeshi woman who moves to London for an arranged marriage to a man twice her age. The novel alternates between her sexy affair with a young Muslim activist and letters from her sister, who is left behind in Bangladesh and who escapes an abusive marriage only to slip into prostitution. (A prettily filmed movie version of the novel, released in 2007, virtually eliminates the sister's voice, sapping much of the violence that informs and makes sense of the novel.)
Ali's second book was 2006's Alentejo Blue, a polyphonic novel set in Portugal, featuring the many worries of assorted villagers, tourists and expatriates.
Now comes Ali's third novel, easily as complex and populous as the first two. In the Kitchen opens with the discovery, in the basement of London's once-grand Imperial Hotel, of a dead, naked porter. Gabriel Lightfoot, the hotel's executive chef, is rattled to discover that the man, a Ukrainian immigrant, was surreptitiously living there. Lightfoot's kitchen is home to a mini-United Nations of colourful types (Suleiman, Benny, Oona, Albert, Victor, Nikolai) as well as oily, barking Gleeson, the restaurant manager, who seems to blame Lightfoot personally for the death. “You do realize, it's on your patch” are Gleeson's first words in the novel.
In addition to the dead porter and a rowdy kitchen, Lightfoot has other worries. He wants to open his own restaurant with the slippery financial backing of Fairweather, a tricky member of Parliament, and Rolly, a snarky money man. Gabriel's girlfriend, a soignée nightclub singer named Charlie, is making noises about settling down. He has just found out that his father has liver cancer.
What's that, you say? There's more room in the soup? Right: Gabriel's Dad lives with the senile and possibly alcoholic Nana; his sister, Jenny, is demanding help with their care. Gabriel is tormented by memories of his dead mother, who suffered from bipolar disorder before there was a name for it.
And oh yeah, Gabriel discovers that the porter wasn't living alone; he shared the hotel basement with Lena, an immigrant from Belarus. Skinny, sullen and terribly young, she becomes an erotic obsession for Gabriel, who takes her into his flat when he learns that she has no place else to go. Her secret history slowly coalesces – as do Benny's, and Nikolai's, and Gleeson's and many others.
In the Kitchen flickers with associations. Wine-bottle labels claim hints of things like chocolate, grapefruit, pine nuts and tar. Sipping this novel, you get Timothy Taylor's Stanley Park, celebrity TV chef Gordon Ramsay of Hell's Kitchen and the Stephen Frears movie Dirty Pretty Things.
The long, slow burn of this novel is alternately rewarding and frustrating. Gabriel's trips to Blantwistle in Lancashire to visit his dying father, and his memories of the mill where his father worked when he was a child, are compelling. Ali is good at families. Love is here, and fear, and tedium, as Gabriel waits for the inevitable loss of his elders to death and dementia.
Less satisfying are Gabriel's professional aspirations and his flickering social conscience. He dreams of running his own restaurant, but we rarely see him cook anything. Instead, he plays with spreadsheets, orders takeout and consumes ill-advised amounts of cigarettes and booze. His chef-iness is attested to by the regular intrusion of cooking metaphors: Suleiman's scarf is “leavened by the heat”; Gabriel “melted into a caramel sleep”; Oona and Ernie “kneaded together over a computer,” whatever that means. These flourishes feel effortful, as though the author is trying to remind herself as much as her reader that she's supposed to be Inhabiting the Mind of a Chef.
The novel builds slowly, sometimes too slowly, until Gabriel's bingeing and sleeplessness finally take their toll and he snaps. The last act of the novel abruptly lurches into fast forward, as Gabriel experiences a manic episode reminiscent (not that he's in a state to recognize it) of his late mother. Through a series of unlikely coincidences, he winds up picking onions alongside a crew of illegal migrants and figuring out some of what has been going on under his nose in his own hotel.
The persistence of slavery – sexual, economic, literal – in contemporary England: There's a novel here, all right, but Ali gives us too little too late. Instead, we are asked to care, at the novel's close, about whether Gabriel can repair his relationship with Charlie. I like Ali's ambition and the breadth of her vision; this time, though, it feels as though her main character is simply a bad fit. Sexual exploitation was the silent engine that drove Brick Lane ; I couldn't help but wonder how In the Kitchen might have been if narrated by the enigmatic Lena instead of the see-through Gabriel. Too often, the reader is put in the position of understanding more of what's going on around him than he does himself. We spend more than 400 pages waiting for him to catch up, while Lena, the novel's deeply troubled moral core, remains – tantalizingly, tragically – just out of reach.
Annabel Lyon's novel The Golden Mean is forthcoming in August; please visit http://annabellyon.blogspot.com
Trouble at the Imperial
Wednesday, 6th May 2009
In the Kitchen
It was probably a mistake for Monica Ali to call the hero of her third novel Gabriel Lightfoot. The reader thinks of Hardy’s bucolic swains and the reddle-man’s cart disappearing over Egdon Heath, whereas instead there lumbers into view a 42-year-old hotel chef with an incipient bald spot and inadequate leisure. On the other hand, Hardy would doubtless have cocked a knowing eye at the complexities of Gabe’s personal-cum-professional life, the fading nightclub singer avid to marry him and bear his children, and the pair of business associates keen to bankroll a swish Pimlico restaurant with his name above the door.
The first sign that all might not be well below stairs at the Piccadilly Imperial, built in 1878 by a Victorian industrialist and once visited by Charlie Chaplin, comes when Yuri, the Ukrainian night-porter, is found dead in the basement store-room. While the coroner diagnoses a drunken fall — much to everybody’s relief — there are other discoveries to set aside the contused and naked body and the two black binliners containing his worldly goods. Chief among them is ex-waitress Lena, a prostituted waif from Moldova, whom Gabe ends up installing in his flat and, somewhat to his surprise — she is utterly charmless — falling in love with. A close second is the slimy restaurant manager’s people-trafficking scam. Meanwhile, from the northern fastness of Blantwistle, comes news of Lightfoot senior’s mortal illness. Love life a mess, professional future uncertain, family skeletons capering through his dreams, Gabe starts to fall apart.
Like Ali’s best-selling debut, Brick Lane — there is no geographical resemblance — In the Kitchen is a novel about modern urban tribes, diaspora and mono-cultural smash. In a work environment where ‘every corner of the earth was represented’, Gabe and fuddled teenage trainee Damian are the kitchen’s only home-grown staff. The old folk up in Blantwistle lament the end of ‘Britishness’ and a multiculturalism that sets myriad translations of council leaflets against insufficient library books. What might be called the panorama tendency in Ali’s work disables it in several ways, most obviously in her characters’ gratuitous habit of reflecting on the state we’re in. But neither Gabe’s father, discussing nationality tests, or his political chum Fairweather — as clumsily named as the hotel — on the economy, or even Gabe himself talking youth cults with his nephew and niece carry very much conviction. Like some of the dialogue (‘I suppose that everything is for sale’) they are lashed to the narrative rather than growing organically from it.