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Monica Ali, In the Kitchen – TLS

30/04/2009

Throughout the twentieth century novelists across the Atlantic from Fitzgerald to DeLillo had it in mind to write ‘The Great American Novel’, a book roomy enough to encompass the nation but sturdy enough to face the questions it posed. At the beginning of the twenty-first century is something similar happening here? Even if ‘The Great British Novel’ seems an unlikely frame for our enduring national ambivalence (and the novels often overflow that frame), the desire to contain multitudes, and to show the difficulty of negotiating so much difference, has been the driving force in ambitious works by Zadie Smith, David Mitchell, Kamila Shamsie, in Monica Ali’s fêted debut, Brick Lane, and now in her latest offering, In the Kitchen.

Ali charts the fate of Gabe Lightfoot, an “executive chef” at a Piccadilly hotel which has undergone many makeovers since its heyday in the Twenties when Chaplin and Coward ambled through the corridors, but in recent times failed to fix an identity – a degree of uncertainty evident in its many wrong notes (chandeliers like ugly, bejewelled dowagers; silk, not fresh, flowers). Like Gabe himself, performing in the hotel to encourage a couple of chancers – a Blairite MP and a businessman – to invest in his own restaurant, The Imperial has lost its way.

In the kitchen, at least, Gabe knows who he is: a Londoner by election, looking at Damian, the only other English worker, and thinking “Don’t let the side down, lad”. The phrase is one of his father’s, whose lessons in how “to be a man” course through Gabe’s mind before being batted away as inappropriate for his cut-throat world where you wait to see “all the angles before making your play. Though the double-dealing troubles him, apart from the irritation he feels for those who have not quite adapted, who retain the tang of home – Oona’s West Indian mothering, Victor’s Moldavian street hustle – he  regards the staff he commands benignly, as a kind of culinary United Nations. But détente proves illusory, and Gabe’s life begins to unravel when Yuri, a Ukrainian night porter, is found in the cellar, naked and blue in a pool of blood.

From such a beginning Ali lulls us into thinking this will be a conventional-enough murder mystery. But to the familiar tale of a life in the big city “spinning” out of control, she brings what Orwell called the “power of facing unpleasant facts” (‘Why I Write’, 1946), dissecting the body politic with great acuity – and humour – and confronting unpalatable truths about our selfishness and complicity.

The London tale opens into a bitter debate between North and South when Gabe returns to the remnants of his family: an ailing father, once a proud mill worker beaten by the casual destruction of his craft and community; a senile “Nana” full of stories about “Pakistans” living like vermin in the roofs of back-to-backs, and a brassy sister, a single parent mum, who has borne the burden of their mother’s mental illness and early death.

Migrant workers, East Anglia, 2007

Against these pungent northern characters Ali sets the ghostly figure of Lena, one of the hotel’s agency workers and connected somehow to Yuri. She has taken a rather more literal beating, but does not complain, does not emote, barely breathes, in fact. And her blankness and brokenness are seductive. Gabe takes her in, a casual kindness, but fails to tell his girlfriend, masking his intentions from himself. So he slips into bed with this “insubstantial” woman, she resigned to paying a price for sanctuary, he “worshipping” her angular contours like a Braque painting, his Lena-in-pieces, a mystery to be solved. The meaning of her inscrutability, of course, is as palpable as the bruises on her body: she has been trafficked for sex. And the story Gabe must expose is not hers, nor even Yuri’s, but his own.

Inevitably the sense of fellow-feeling Gabe enjoys, endowed by the city in all its variousness, wears away: when he scratches beneath the surface he finds just how feeble is his understanding of those around him. A casual drink with a Liberian worker uncovers the story of a child soldier who played football with a woman’s head. The vertigo of such a moment, like the brutal truth of his relationship with Lena, lead Gabe into crisis. Falling from his life into “another dimension”, his sense of self now also in pieces, he winds up working with a troupe of immigrant labourers, anonymous as any gastarbeiter, digging onions from the earth in a field in East Anglia.

Back in London, finally Gabe acts, trying to be the honourable man his father wanted, but he fails absurdly. “Are your hands clean?” his boss demands when Gabe lashes out; while the cashmere clad MP warns that resistance leads only to ruin. Which indeed it does. “Things…fall apart” Ali recites in her opening paragraph, and maybe, she suggests, this is not the worst outcome: to face the rough beast in the mirror even if it means bringing the world down around us.

This is a version of a review that appeared first as ‘Fellow Feelings’ in the TLS, April 2009.

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