IN THE KITCHEN by Monica Ali

Book Quote:

“Things change. There’s no point trying to keep everything the same. And just because things are different doesn’t mean they are worse.”

Book Review:

Review by Poonrima Apte (AUG 24, 2009)

There is one central point that the talented English author, Monica Ali, makes with her new novel, In the Kitchen: Whether it’s London or an industrial town called Blantwistle, commerce has changed Great Britain.

In fact, when laments are frequently voiced about the decline of the British empire, it is hard not to draw parallels to the situation here in the United States. “There’s no industry anymore. We don’t produce anything,” says a character in the novel. “You can’t build a pyramid upside down, it’ll fall over, you’ve to get the foundation right.” Sound familiar?

The “kitchen” described in the book’s title is the one at the Imperial Hotel in London, “a hotel that had undergone many incarnations since its launch in 1878.” The chef here, Gabriel (Gabe) Lightfoot, is biding time until he can open his own restaurant with financial backing from two politicians. Gabe is happy enough with his singer girlfriend and even hopes to marry her soon—only he can’t commit to a more permanent relationship just yet.

Then one day, a dead body surfaces on the kitchen premises and Gabe is convinced that there are shady goings on right under his nose. He gets involved with a mysterious woman called Lena, whom he spots on the site, and even brings her home because she has nowhere to go.

Back home in his native Blantwistle, Gabe’s father Ted, a retired mill worker, is dying from cancer. As he wastes away, he also laments the loss of the way of life he once knew. “We’ve lost the ‘Great.’ Know what else we’ve lost? Britishness. People keep talking about it,” Ted says. “That’s how you know it’s gone.”

The mills where Ted used to work have all been taken down and converted into “Rileys Shopping Village,” a lifestyle shopping center complete with tours of how the mills once used to operate.

As the novel moves on, the plot fails to thicken—it merely coagulates into lumps. Lena, it turns out, is the victim of a trafficking network and even the hotel managers might have their fingers in the pie. Towards the end, the story careens off wildly with Gabe even doing his own stint at an illegal farming operation and subsequently suffering a nervous breakdown.

Unfortunately many parts of In the Kitchen remain unconvincing till the end. Gabe’s sudden taking up with Lena seems quite implausible. One can’t even explain it as a midlife crisis—Gabe seems much too bland to show such drama. The characters in the book seem strained and it often feels like Ali has created them just to get her points (about globalization, trafficking etc) across.

All this is unfortunate especially since Brick Lane, her debut, was simply phenomenal. The sheer passion with which Brick Lane shone has unfortunately not had a follow up act. Both of Ali’s subsequent works—Alentejo Blue and In the Kitchen—lack the fiery writing which made the debut such a worthy read. In the Kitchen makes its points about contemporary Britain. But it does so in a measured, clinical fashion without Brick Lane’s fire.

At one point, when Gabe asks a coworker what three words can best be used to describe him, he gets: Tall. White. Male. And as the story meanders on, the reader realizes just how appropriate the descriptors are. There is nothing much about Gabe to write home about. More important, it’s hard to care about the weightier issues Ali wants us to reflect upon when the protagonist is such a plain vanilla, self-absorbed bore.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 44 readers
PUBLISHER: Scribner (June 16, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Publisher page for Monica Ali
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read a review of Brick Lane

Another book set in the kitchen, so to speak:

The Last Night in the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan


Movies from books:

August 24, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Literary, United Kingdom, World Lit

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