Published in The Daily Star on January 23 2010
The third novel by Dhaka-born Monica Ali is a superbly written, behind-the-scenes account of a commercial kitchen in London.
It is no less an achievement than her best-selling debut novel Brick Lane, which portrayed a young Bangladeshi woman adjusting to a new life with a doddering husband and a home in a concrete jungle in east London.
In the Kitchen takes a long, cold look at the city’s catering industry, which is largely fuelled by immigrants who find an opening in its transience after escaping from complicated pasts. The novel is set in the busy but impersonal Imperial Hotel and opens with the death of a night porter who had been living incognito in the “catacombs” – the downstairs storage area. Amongst a dozen or so others, there is the obstetrician-turned-cook Nikolai, who was sentenced in absentia to fourteen years in prison under Gorbachev, the young Liberian who recounts horrific traumas, and the scrawny, uncommunicative Lena, who was trafficked from Belarus. Other than an ambitious Indian and the English executive chef, everyone works at the Imperial Hotel by force of circumstance rather than a love of food.
Nevertheless, Ali injects her novel with rich descriptions of the frenetic scenes behind every dish and it’s impossible not to admire her ability to conjure up a living, breathing, sweating, kitchen. To quote her but once: “Steam rose in a column and dispersed, like an idea that can find no words.”
The story is told through the eyes of the hotel’s executive chef, Gabriel Lightfoot, whose descent into emotional chaos is the real meat of the novel. He is not an instantly likeable character nor perhaps, is he ever, and this makes things somewhat less compelling for the reader. Gabe’s attitude to his staff is typified by a cold indifference mixed with spontaneous surges of compassion. During a rare moment of unity when a minute’s silence is called for to mark a week since the porter’s death, he thinks, “Why in the middle of service, when every minute counts?” He invents a dilemma between maintaining his authority and knowing their individual stories: “He was curious to hear about Benny’s history but he didn’t want to be burdened with it. If he had to yell at Benny about something, or even give him the sack, he preferred not to know about the truly terrible things he might have been through.”
Gabe is in his early forties and he is on the brink of realising his dream to open a restaurant of his own. He is in a long-term relationship with a woman he loves and imagines starting a family together. Despite feeling frustrated by the time it has taken him to achieve his “tick-list” of goals, he feels that “Looking sideways (for what man is strong enough to resist?) he could say that things were not too bad.”
Things begin to unravel when he discovers that his father is dying and his only sibling has become a stranger to him. Gabe returns to his home in northern England and feels repulsed by the bigotry, particularly as espoused within his own family. He fights with his father and feels helpless at being unable to escape the pattern of their fraught relations. It is only when he realises that his late mother – his “fairy princess” – was not all that he thought she was, that he begins to re-evaluate his own behaviour, and concludes with the help of his sister – that he has failed as a son.
Gabe begins to question everything in his life, including his relationship to food. His kitchen staff endure tirades of abuse as he rallies against a crisis of confidence. Against all logic, he begins an affair “an indiscretion, rather, because ‘affair’ was too grand a word,” with the trafficked Lena. Here Ali presents the reader with a scarcely believable femme fatale. Whilst Gabe is enraged by the exploitation she endured, he himself regards her as dishonest, manipulative and rude. He is irritated by her passive consumption of trashy television and their muted exchanges barely pass for conversation. Nor does she particularly appeal to him physically: “Her hair, tied in a ponytail, was limp and greasy. Her earlobes were stretched by thick gold hoops. A row of studs ran up the cartlidge of the left ear. The tendons of her neck formed two thick cords.”
Thus Ali forces the reader to observe, with hand-wringing frustration, a man throw away his all for nothing. Whether he begins anew would make an interesting sequel.