California Literary Review

In the Kitchen by Monica Ali

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August 13th, 2009 at 2:19 pm

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In the Kitchen by Monica Ali
In the Kitchen: A Novel
by Monica Ali
Scribner, 448 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

Cooking Without Gas

Monica Ali’s been eating her Brussels sprouts. And her peas. And even the strange stringy bits of weed that they toss into fancy salads when no one’s looking.

Which is to say, she’s done her research for her new novel In the Kitchen, the story of an executive chef losing the plot. She’s walked into the walk-in freezers, talked the talk with the multiethnic migrant workers of London’s high end restaurants. But I’m not sure that she particularly enjoyed eating her vegetables, which makes In the Kitchen an admirable effort, but not a success.

Ali’s first problem is that her protagonist, Gabriel Lightfoot (a.k.a. Gabe) is a fairly wet fish. Alternatively morose and unmotivated, Gabe is the executive chef at the Imperial Hotel. How he manages to command his motley crew of Africans and Eastern Europeans is anybody’s guess, since he seems wholly uninterested in his job.

His real dream is to run a restaurant of his own, a dream that appears close to some kind of reality. He has backers – a politician and a businessman – the experience and the goal in his sights, but he hasn’t banked on Yuri going and getting himself killed.

Yuri is a porter, one of Britain’s penniless immigrants that Ali would like us (and Gabe) to finally acknowledge. He dies alone in the kitchen’s basement, the victim of a tragic accident.

Or is it more…?

Actually, no, it’s not more. And that’s Ali’s second difficulty. Despite some noirish touches (the appearance of a young Belarusian named Lena with a secret past; a sleazy restaurant manager running a shady behind-the-scenes scheme in the hotel), In the Kitchen is not a thriller. Gabe spends more time agonizing over his complicated personal relationships or obsessing about Lena’s body than he does delving into the maggot-filled underbelly of British life.

Which makes In the Kitchen an odd mix of midlife crisis – Gabe discovering his mother’s hushed-up secret; Gabe sleeping with Lena and neglecting to tell his girlfriend – and soft-shoe polemic.

Take the kitchen staff. Many have horrific stories to tell:

Then one day Kono went on a raid, and they did the usual stuff, raping, looting, killing. When they had finished this work, they relaxed for a while in this village. Some of the boy soldiers began playing football, and Kono went to join in. He saw that they were using a woman’s head for a ball. Kono joined in the game.

But these characters are never fully fleshed out, often coming across as spokespersons for Amnesty International (fine for U.N. conferences, but out of place in the messy world of a novel). Ironically, in trying to highlight the evils of war, rape and human trafficking, Ali dulls our reactions to them.

That’s not to say, though, that she lacks perception. Take her observation on an outdoor market:

At a stand selling tea towels, three old ladies, their hair freshly set for their day out, picked through the offerings with great deliberation as if selecting their trousseau.

This takes place in Riley’s Shopping Village, a tarted-up tourist mall built on the remnants of a decaying mill town up north. Gabe’s dying father was a millworker, and the passages where Gabe remembers his childhood are probably the most successful. They hold the scent of memory. His kitchen has the smell of research.

Whenever a good author trips up a little with a novel, I take to wondering about their writing process. Especially when Ali, whose novel Brick Lane was a roaring success, is working under the pressure of publishers and the public to come through again.

Was she happy with the result? Did she set out to pen a thriller and feel herself pulled by Gabe into a squidgy pudding of emotion? Did she get bogged down in the details of her research?

Or was she after something new – the mystery element melting into a “portrait of a modern man’s disintegration when faced with inescapable familial and societal truths”?

Call me crazy, but I think at one point she even has the debate with herself. Here’s Gabe talking to his girlfriend Charlie about a thriller they’ve just seen at the movies:

“Weren’t you thrilled? Clever plot. Give it that.”

To which Charlie replies:

“Yes, but that’s a bad thing. All plot, no story. Nothing unfolds, everything is forced.”

Point taken. Ali may not want to force her characters into a thriller’s rigid plot structure, but she has to be careful not to let them run away from her.

And in the end, that’s exactly what Gabe does. He runs away from life only to discover himself running towards revelations about Lena and the restaurant manager’s scheme. Ali’s metaphor is clear: just as he has finally uncovered the family secrets that have made him what he is, he has finally peeled back the skin of polite society to reveal to us the blood, flesh and fat underneath.

But whether we care, particularly, about his discovery is another story.

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