IN THE KITCHEN by Monica Ali
âThings change. Thereâs no point trying to keep everything the same. And just because things are different doesnât mean they are worse.â
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 itâs 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. âThereâs no industry anymore. We donât produce anything,â says a character in the novel. âYou canât build a pyramid upside down, itâll fall over, youâve to get the foundation right.â Sound familiar?
The âkitchenâ described in the bookâs title is the one at the Imperial Hotel in London, âa hotel that had undergone many incarnations since its launch in 1878.â 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 soonâonly he canât 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, Gabeâs 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. âWeâve lost the âGreat.â Know what else weâve lost? Britishness. People keep talking about it,â Ted says. âThatâs how you know itâs gone.â
The mills where Ted used to work have all been taken down and converted into âRileys Shopping Village,â a lifestyle shopping center complete with tours of how the mills once used to operate.
As the novel moves on, the plot fails to thickenâit 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. Gabeâs sudden taking up with Lena seems quite implausible. One canât even explain it as a midlife crisisâGabe 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 Aliâs subsequent worksâAlentejo Blue and In the Kitchenâlack 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 Laneâs 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, itâs 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:||from 44 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Scribner (June 16, 2009)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Publisher page for Monica Ali|
|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
- Brick Lane (March 2003)
- Alentejo Blue (June 2006)
- In the Kitchen (June 2009)
- Untold Story (June 2011)
Movies from books:
- Brick Lane (2009)