London Flambé: Monica Ali in the Kitchen

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One need only take a brief look at the TV Guide or the magazine aisle at the supermarket to know that we are a culture recently obsessed with kitchens, celebrity chefs, and gourmet culinary delights. The fascination is one that has tended to glamorize food even as it portrays the foul language and violence of many a prestigious restaurant kitchen. The drama, it seems, only adds to the appeal of its product. Extreme personalities, hot stoves, extreme pressure: it’s a recipe for great entertainment. With such a hot setting, one might expect Monica Ali’s latest novel In the Kitchen to sizzle. Unfortunately, it brings less than expected to the table.

In the Kitchen is an attempt to explore the underbelly of the culinary world through the fictional but aptly named kitchen of London’s Imperial Hotel (formerly shabby, now fabulous). The kitchen that Ali portrays is a melting pot of cultures and dialects, full of exploited agency (temporary contract) workers and clashes of culture. At the center of the novel (and the kitchen) is the hotel’s head chef, Gabriel Lightfoot, a 42-year-old Northern English chef recently hired as a part of the Imperial’s renovation project. Gabriel has plans to use his stint at the Imperial as a stepping stone towards launching his own restaurant and settling into the adult life he has envisioned for himself. In pursuit of this goal, plans for which are underway, he remains as aloof as possible from the international milieu that surrounds him—so much so, in fact, that many of the kitchen scenes are likely to disappoint fans of Gordon Ramsey kitchen drama. Gabe seems unable to muster enough energy to even raise his voice at the staff members who behave however they please in his kitchen.

In the opening lines of the novel, Ali writes, “When he looked back, he felt that the death of the Ukranian was the point at which things began to fall apart.” Gabriel doesn’t know Yuri, the Ukranian night porter at the Imperial who is discovered dead in the hotel’s basement at the beginning of the novel, but his death haunts him. Though he is not officially implicated or even really involved in the inquest, Gabe suffers ongoing nightmares about the porter’s decaying body and his own possible implication in the death. The death is Ali’s initial hook, setting up Gabe’s emotional fragility and the themes that will drive the rest of the book.

While in the basement, revisiting the site of the Yuri’s death, Gabe first sees Lena, a young Belarussian agency employee of the hotel who was recently fired for her absence on the day of Yuri’s death. He is haunted also by the “ghoulish” memory of Lena and the possible reasons for her presence in the catacombs of the hotel. Lena seems to be connected in some way to the deceased and his death, and perhaps this is the reason why, upon seeing her again outside the hotel, Gabe takes her home, sleeps with her, and promises to get her back on her feet.

Gabe attributes his emotional collapse soon after to Yuri’s death, but the real conflict comes from the collision of his life with Lena’s and what that might imply for Yuri’s life and death. Over the course of nightly conversations into which Gabe seems to force the (very) young girl, the reader learns of Lena’s past as a sex slave and a runaway from her former pimp. In the time before Yuri’s death, she had been living in the basement with him—both of them victims of illicit labor practices, unable to go to the police for fear of deportation. Gabe’s relationship with Lena becomes a microcosm for the way he exists in the world at large. As their relationship continues he imagines himself to be falling in love with her, at the expense of everyone else in his life and, as it turns out, at the expense of Lena as well:

He worked at her with an urgency he had not known before. And yet he felt little desire. In this coupling, they would be made new; from this they would draw their strength. He needed this, to wipe the slate, and to brand his indelible mark. Sweat rolled off his brow and into his eyes. It made them sting. He buried himself. He needed this. To engrave himself so deeply that all others would be erased.

Embroiled in this sordid relationship, Gabe’s life begins to unravel. He proposes to and then breaks up with his English girlfriend Charlie, a singer in a local nightclub who storms out upon discovering his activities with Lena. He learns that his father has been diagnosed with cancer, uncovers his mother’s mental illness, and struggles with the onset of his grandmother’s dementia. Towards the end of the novel, Gabe suffers his own mental breakdown and ultimately finds himself on an illicit onion farm in rural England with a group of exploited agency workers like those employed in his kitchen. The physical move from city to country mirrors Gabriel’s personal development as he comes to understand his own implication in the exploitative labor practices of the hotel kitchen. By the time Gabe has suffered a nervous breakdown and ended up on the onion farm, the tables have clearly turned, but Ali goes to such extremes to prove her point that it’s hard to follow her the whole way there.

From the early pages of the novel, Ali makes it difficult to empathize with her highly ineffectual protagonist who, at 42, is still waiting for his life to begin. Gabe’s inability to control the staff in the hotel seems to seep slowly but surely into his personal life as the reader watches him take wrong turn after wrong turn. By the time he suffers his rather bizarre collapse, the reader has given up almost any attempt at identification or empathy. The novel has become as meandering and directionless as Gabe’s disintegrating life, so the novel’s abrupt relocation to the onion farms comes as yet another bizarre installment in an increasingly bizarre narrative.

This is not to say that Ali hasn’t done her research; she has, and it shows. In the acknowledgments, Ali lists her extensive reading on the culinary world, and, in interviews, she recalls the many months she spent exploring hotels and recording their daily backstage activity. The episode at the onion farm and the detail’s of Lena’s complicated past are all taken from actual news reports. It is clear, though, that Ali is far more familiar with the kitchen than with the sites of illicit labor in the English countryside, and this doesn’t help strengthen the novel’s odd ending. Her kitchen scenes are, at their best, explosive, but Gabe’s stint as an unauthorized laborer is forced and confusing.

Ali seems to be attempting too much in her desire to encompass the entire country and all of its inhabitants. One gets the sense that she began with a series of short stories—on life in a London hotel; on a 40-something man struggling with his past as his father dies of cancer in the north of England; on the extremes of illicit labor practices in England. Some of these vignettes work better than others (some of the scenes in Gabe’s hometown of Blantwistle are among the novel’s most interesting), but with so many of these narratives happening simultaneously, the novel ultimately lacks continuity, and Ali’s attempt to conclude her novel with life-as-normal status quo seems absurd in the context of all that has happened.

This is a shame, really, because Ali’s intellectual focus in the novel is both relevant and interesting. As in her previous work, which differs significantly in its plot and setting but not in its themes, In the Kitchen is an attempt to engage with ideas of self, identity, and agency in a multicultural world. It was her initial exploration of these themes in her debut novelBrick Lane that won her critical acclaim and a three-book deal with Scribner in the first place. But, Monica Ali was almost destined to disappoint. When she crashed onto the literary scene in 2003, having been named as Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, she had yet to publish a single word. The release of Brick Lane (a few chapters of which had won her the book deal and the unpublished manuscript of which had won her Granta’s recognition) was met with great acclaim: she was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and hailed as the next Salman Rushdie or Zadie Smith.

Since 2003, though, Ali’s literary career has been on shakier ground. Her biography on the jacket of In the Kitchen fails to even mention her 2006 novel Alentejo Blue, a series of vignettes on Portuguese village life that was a commercial and critical flop after the success of Brick Lane. With In the Kitchen, Ali hopes to redeem herself, and, again, it seems, to deliberately distance herself from the ethnic classification that made her famous in the first place. Brick Lane drew, in part, on Ali’s heritage as a British writer of Bangladeshi origin in its portrayal of a young Bangladeshi woman Nazneen who moves to London for an arranged marriage. The novel follows Nazneen as she adjusts to the streets and culture of London and finds agency and identity in her new life. The subject invited Ali’s literary placement along side the likes of Rushdie, Smith, and newer “ethnic” writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Khaled Hosseini, and Kiran Desai. Despite the fact that Brick Lane more closely resembled the work of Proust in its juxtaposition of memory and reality, and Alice Walker in its narrative of sisters separated in adulthood, Ali was readily compared with Zadie Smith because of her status as a nonwhite woman writing about nonwhite life in London. She was a match for the new trend in literature and found her novel on display tables in Borders and Waterstones along with all the other “non-Western” authors.

Since then, Ali seems to have attempted to redirect focus back onto the writing itself by moving away from her initial subject matter. She has been partially successful. As she stated in an interview following the publication of Brick Lane, “There is no onus on writers to write anything other than the truth about the world as they see it… The freedom of the writer to write exactly what they want is entirely dominant for me.” Critics today acknowledge that she has very little in common with either Smith or Rushdie, and her writing in In the Kitchenhas been more aptly compared to that of Dickens. Her efforts to avoid classification as an “ethnic” author have taken her from London’s Brick Lane to a Portuguese village to a prestigious London hotel. The problem is that, even in resisting the initial categories set out for her, she seems to fall prey to them.

Almost every character in In the Kitchen, except Gabriel, has an accent — including even Gabriel’s sister and father. Ali attempts to convey a linguistic melting pot as British regional accents combine with Caribbean, French, and Belarussian. Nevertheless, the language her characters are given comes off, at times, as absurd and even mildly offensive. For example, Chef Albert, the Frenchman who runs the hotel’s pastry kitchen describes his culinary history, “Our first love… We will talk of nothing else. My maman, God rest ‘er soul, was from Dordogne, and she ‘ave teach me what she love — confit, truffle, fois gras. And my papa, God rest ‘is soul, was from Brittany, and from ‘im I ‘ave learn about ze seafood.” Or when Oona, Gabe’s Executive Sous Chef, whom he describes as “static” and “domestic” fusses over Gabe in his office, “Hotter than hell its own self, darlin’. One day I goin’ find you all melt. Just a lickle-ickle puddle on the chair, chef’s hat on top. Hooo-hee.”

Because she has chosen a kitchen that she describes as “a United Nations task force all bent to their work,” Ali seems unable to give each character its due, allowing them to become almost as stereotypical as their speech. Oona is kept on at the hotel for her encyclopedic institutional memory, but she’s homely and quaint, not a serious chef like Gabriel. Chef Albert is extravagant and hot-tempered. Other characters play mostly ideological roles. Gabriel’s father, a Northern English mill worker, represents a conservative defense of Englishness in the face of immigration, “We’re talking about how it was when people round here cared about each other. When you knew everyone in the street and they knew you [. . .] there was community [. . .] a community here, and that’s been lost.” His girlfriend Charlie is his father’s liberal counterpart, an inactive but socially conscious Londoner: When Gabe asks her how she is after their breakup, she responds, “Oh, the usual, still worrying about Darfur, the polar ice caps, the wrinkles around my eyes.” Fairweather, Charlie’s business partner and a British MP, is the voice of political reason and corruption,

What you’ve got to understand [. . .] is that even if it did happen to your guy, you’re not going to change the world by making a fuss. It’s too widespread for that. It’s endemic, it’s a structural problem [. . .] there’s a private member’s bill coming up for equal rights for agency workers, but for very complex reasons, we’ve been unable to back it.

With little time given to characterization, the characters become, like the setting, the backdrop for Gabe’s own journey rather than contributors to the narrative.

Ali had similar problems in Brick Lane, in which some characters felt like mere ideological mouthpieces for debates about religion, ethnicity, and identity that were taking place around Nazneen. Both novels are stories about the search for self-identity and agency, but, in Brick Lane, Nazneen learned from those around her, fashioning their ideologies into one of her own making. In In the Kitchen Gabe is not only far less likable, he is also far less open to those around him. When the narrative focuses on Gabe, the characters surrounding him are revealed only as he sees them. It’s an effective narrative technique for those characters occasionally given the opportunity to speak for themselves. Lena, for example, is, for much of the novel, entirely what Gabriel makes of her — a young (but we don’t know how young) helpless girl for whom he tenderly cares. In one of the novel’s most dramatic scenes, in which Lena responds to Gabe’s endless questions, the reader is afforded the rare opportunity to hear directly from her,

“You keep me here like… like prison. Like animal in cage.”

He could see what he was doing wrong. He looked at himself with a mixture of pity and disgust. What a sap. What a fool. Would he never learn? “Do I lock you in? Do I beat you?” He should know better than to shout. He did know better. But here we go again. “Don’t I give you everything you ask for and more?”

“You promise,” said Lena, attacking her fingernail, “but you don’t give […] You say you look for Pasha. You say you pay someone. But I don’t believe […] You say you give me money. How long I wait for it?”

He was watching her twist the end of her plait around her finger. He was looking into her glazed blue eyes, trying to make them focus on him. He was thinking a thousand thoughts, and none of them was right […] Oh, no, no. Stop looking. Don’t hear any more.

“I have earn that money. I have earn it. Here, with you, is not for free. Why don’t you pay me? Pay me what you owe.”

It’s a haunting dispute, both for the reader and Gabriel, but these affecting scenes, unfortunately, are few and far between. Ali’s novel is interesting from a sociological perspective, as a commentary on labor and social relations in London, but it is ineffective from a literary perspective. Perhaps sensing that the story is getting lost in the enormous terrain she is attempting to cover, Ali overwrites each of her points in the most explicit terms in an attempt to drive them home, as when Nikolai, the kitchen’s doctor-turned-philosopher, explains to Gabe, “The significance of Yuri’s death [. . .] is that it is insignificant. That is why it is so troubling. That is why you dream.” Or when Gabe’s father advises, “Listen,son, you should know, threads break all the time. A decent weaver won’t wait on a tackler. They’ll fix it and get on.” Ali never trusts her reader to piece together the themes with which she is working, and it is a pity because the novel would be far more interesting if more was left to the reader.

Ali attributed the success of Brick Lane to the transcendence of the themes she was exploring. She argued that the themes — struggles of home, identity, and community — have significance for a wide variety of people and that they need not be confined to “ethnic” literature. In this respect, her efforts to distance her work from the moniker of ethnic literature in order to prove the falsities of that category are, I think, admirable. She has proven in her three broadly ranging books that the same themes can be explored form different vantage points and locales.

Unfortunately, though, these efforts have taken her too far afield here. It is not that the same ideas do not apply, but that In the Kitchen fails to offer the reader characters with whom they identify and empathize. Many of the flaws of this latest novel are not new to Ali — Brick Lane had its own overt metaphors and flat characters; but over the course of Nazneen’s journey from naive young girl to independent immigrant woman, these flaws did not ring so false. In this new setting, Ali uses many of the same techniques and even some of the exact same plot points (both novels, for example, contain significant scenes in which the main character suffers from chili pepper in his / her eye), but the same leeway just isn’t possible because it isn’t true to Ali’s new protagonist — this time not a young, inexperienced girl but a 42-year-old man. The themes of home and identity are still interesting and relevant, but here their delivery is wrong.

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About Katherine Evans Pritchard

Katherine Evans Pritchard is a contributing editor and PhD candidate in American Studies at Boston University.