Reviewed byPatricia Volk
Arestaurant kitchen is a functional substitute for hell. Flames leap, plates fly-knives and fingers, too. They're also the default place immigrants, legal and otherwise, find work. At London's Imperial Hotel, the setting for Monica Ali's In the Kitchen, nobody speaks the same language and everybody is underpaid. Ali, acclaimed author of Brick Lane, nails the killer heat, killer fights and lethal grease buildup, all of it supervised by a "simmering culinary Heathcliff," Gabriel Lightfoot, executive chef.
Lightfoot dropped out of school at 16 to begin paying his kitchen dues, working crazy hours with crazy people while studying food chemistry and Brillat-Savarin. Along the way, he picked up scarred hands and a ravaged psyche. At 24, given his own restaurant, it went straight up his nose. Now, almost 20 years later, two wealthy Londoners have agreed to back Gabriel in a new restaurant, Lightfoot's, where he'll serve "Classic French, precisely executed. Rognons de veau dijonnaise, poussin en cocotte Bonne Femme, tripes à la mode de Caen." In postmodern balsamic-drenched London, Gabriel is confident traditional French is poised for a comeback.
Then the naked corpse of a Ukrainian night porter is discovered in the Imperial's basement, his head in a pool of blood. There is no one to claim the body. The ripple-free effect of a human death unhinges Gabriel. He develops a voluptuous need to self-sabotage. Visual manifestations include a Dr. Strangelove arm tic, shaking limbs and violent bald-spot scratching. Gabriel cheats on his fiancée and lies to his lover. The story istold in the third person, but through Gabriel's point of view. Intimacy juggles distance: "After a certain point, he could not stop himself. His desire was a foul creature that climbed on his back and wrapped its long arms around his neck."
Ali is brilliant at showing loss and adaptation in a polyglot culture. Her descriptions of the changing peoplescape are fresh. But inside Gabriel's head is not the most compelling place to be. A tragic nonhero, he thinks with his "one-eyed implacable foe." It does not help that a recurring dream crumbles him, and since Gabriel doesn't understand the dream, neither does the reader. It assumes an unsustainable importance. You can play Freud or you can turn the page.
Ali is not plot-averse: she provides a mysterious death, a hotel sex-trade scam, a slave-labor scheme, missing money and a dying parent. Yet Lightfoot is a character in search of a motive. It's a tribute to Ali that we care. Here is a true bastard, ravaged and out of control. In the Kitchen has the thud and knock of life-inexplicable, impenetrable, not sewn up at all. As Gabriel's lover is fond of saying: "Tchh." (June)
Patricia Volk is the author, most recently, of the memoirStuffed and the novelTo My Dearest Friends(both from Knopf).Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the immigrant world of East End London in Brick Lane, shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize, Ali moves into the culinary world of a once posh London hotel restaurant, again capturing the multicultural layers of modern London. Gabriel Lightfoot, executive chef for the Imperial Hotel, dreams of owning his own restaurant but must first contend with the UN task force that is his kitchen crew. His life becomes even more complicated when the body of a Hungarian porter is found dead in a storeroom. Still, restaurant troubles are nothing when compared with his personal life. His girlfriend is pressuring him about marriage, unaware that he's sleeping with a Russian kitchen girl, and his ever-difficult father is dying of cancer. Gabe's two stories entwine, the pressure mounts, and, finally, he loses his bearings. With sometimes sly humor, Ali deftly sheds light on the irony of struggling in a land with abundant opportunities. For all fiction readers. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/1/09.]
The turbulent, multicultural London backdrop is the same, but the dutiful Muslim wife in transition, who drove the action of Ali's brilliant debut (Brick Lane, 2003, etc.), has been replaced by a very different kind of protagonist: a talented chef in midlife crisis. The future looks rosy for 42-year-old Gabriel Lightfoot. He has turned around a failing restaurant in an old London hotel and secured financial backing to open his own establishment, a lifelong dream. Marriage is in the cards with gorgeous girlfriend Charlie, a jazz singer. Yet the novel's first sentence signals the crack-up to come. A Ukrainian kitchen porter has been found dead in the restaurant basement. Another porter, young, rail-thin Lena from Belorusse, appears to be homeless. Gabe invites her to his place, a favor for which she matter-of-factly offers sex in return. Lena is cold and hard-unsurprising, since she was trafficked into prostitution and is on the run from her brutal pimp. Gabe is startled to realize that he does indeed want to have sex with Lena, in fact is falling for her. Charlie finds out and dumps him. A visit to his dying father in the former mill town where he was raised brings back childhood memories. Meanwhile there's a kitchen to be run. Ali does a superb job of evoking this histrionic, occasional violent workplace manned by "a United Nations task force." She hints too at the dark world of bonded labor that lies beyond the kitchen, as a major scandal involving the hotel maids threatens to erupt and Gabe plays detective. It's too much for him; he has two panic attacks before losing it completely and roaming the streets like a madman. Ali takes risks here, and not all of them pay off. Gabe's obsessionwith Lena and subsequent breakdown are not wholly convincing, and Charlie gets shortchanged as a character. Moment to moment, however, the novel is engrossing. Flawed but still impressive, the work of a fearless writer determined to challenge herself. Author tour to Chicago, Denver, New York, San Francisco, Seattle
"Part Kitchen Confidential, part murder mystery, [Ali] uses a posh hotel as a window into British society."The Daily Beast
“All the ingredients for a sizzling tale are present: A sudden death that may or may not be accidental. A middle-age chef on the verge of a breakdown. Sexual obsession. An illicit affair. A nefarious plot involving human smuggling.”—Thrity Umrigar, Boston Globe
“Gabriel Lightfoot is an unforgettable protagonist, his descent into lunacy frighteningly recognizable, individual, profound.”—Pam Houston, O, the Oprah Magazine
“A wonderful writer… Evocative … terrific.”—Janice Kaplan on “Good Morning America”
“The kitchen scenes are superb…. and the dialogue crackles with authenticity…. [A] serious and intelligent take on the hidden world of Britain's illegal immigrants.”—Conan Putnam, Chicago Tribune
"What pungency in her prose, what immediacy… You cannot help admiring the power of this writer…. Unforgettable.”—Martin Rubin, Washington Times
"Ali gets the kitchen just right and Gabriel is a sympathetic and beautifully realized character."Time
"Remarkable... A meditation on free will and what it means to be a human being trying to control one's life."Columbus Dispatch
"Ali is an expert at detailing the immigrant experience in London... Ali possesses great powers of lyricism and insight."Christian Science Monitor
"Ali writes with wit and sympathy about the many twists and turns that define our lives."Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
"A truly Dickensian cast of characters... Ali rewards readers, too, with .. outstanding passages... Ali's prodigious talents are often on display."Buffalo News