Friday, July 31, 2009

ArtsPaper Books: Ali shows deft plotting hand in 'Kitchen,' but overwrites like the Dickens

By Chauncey Mabe

One of the knocks on modern literary fiction is that it seldom shows people at work, where, after all, most of us spend the preponderance of our time.

And yet, as Monica Ali inadvertently demonstrates with In the Kitchen, it is possible to go too far in the opposite direction. Showing the tedium of a working life is one thing. Making it tedious for the reader is quite another.

That’s not to say Ali (at right) lacks novelistic gifts. She’s best known for her first novel, Brick Lane (2003), which garnered rapturous reviews, sold like crazy in Britain and America, and became a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. The story of a Bangladeshi girl who immigrates to London for an arranged marriage to a much older man, it displayed a sure hand with a large cast of characters.

In the Kitchen presents a complicated storyline with a richly diverse cast of characters, too. To Ali’s credit there is scarcely a South Asian among them. Clearly, she is a writer unwilling to return to the scene of past triumphs. Her protagonist, in fact, is the thoroughly Anglo-Saxon Gabriel Lightfoot, a 42-year-old chef on the verge of opening his own restaurant. He has the backing of two rich and connected London businessmen, but for the moment he’s proving his mettle at the Imperial, a once-posh hotel. If he can turn this kitchen around, then he’s fit to run his own place.

Gabriel is hardworking and knowledgeable, and though he firmly manages his staff of Senegalese, Ukrainian, Jamaican and Scottish workers, he’s not the bully we might expect from those celebrity chef reality shows on TV. He seems to deserve the professional leap he’s about to make. He’s also close to asking his girlfriend, a beautiful and emotionally stable jazz singer named Charlie, to marry him.

So of course the pressures mount. At the start of the book a Ukrainian porter is found dead in the kitchen’s basement, drawing police and press attention to the hotel. Gabriel grows increasingly frustrated by the work ethic of his Jamaican sous-chef. The hotel manager is up to something shady, though Gabriel can’t quite figure out what. And his father, back home in Northern England, is dying.

Ali does so much so well with this elaborate scenario that it is hard to figure out why In the Kitchen is so unsatisfying. She fearlessly moves from character to character, sketching credible personalities of people from a multiplicity of cultures. She’s deft with dialect, whether Jamaican, Scottish, Russian, or working-class English. She maneuvers a complex array of storylines, all seen strictly from Gabriel’s point of view, in just the right way to maximize tension and suspense.

Still, reading this book can be a slog. Brick Lane has been called “Dickensian,” and the same can be said of In the Kitchen – only now that’s not entirely a compliment. Ali seems to have come under the misapprehension that Dickensian means not only richly peopled and plotted, but also verbose. Accordingly, she burdens the narrative with sludgy descriptive passages:

The morning was brittle-bright, and Gabriel stood in the frost-starched loading bay watching the cheese van pull in through the gates. A single white cloud stood in the hard blue sky. Beyond the courtyard, London hummed its early morning song, endlessly reverberating, one crescendo piling into the next. A black bird flew down from the wall and pecked the moss between the cobblestones…

London hummed? The sky was blue? Please.

Ali also has an irritating habit of stating the obvious. Catering a corporate gala at the hotel, Gabriel is chatting with his secret backers when a woman comes up to one of them, a member of Parliament, and says, “Excuse me – hope you don’t mind me asking, but – are you somebody?” That’s clear and funny. Or at least it’s funny until Ali expends the entire next paragraph explaining the irony of it to us.

In fairness, the gears start to mesh about halfway through. Gabriel’s greatest pressures are the ones he manufactures for himself, sabotaging his chances at success and happiness. He takes a woeful Russian prostitute under his protection, hiding her in his apartment and putting his relationship with Charlie at risk. Impulsively, he travels to visit his father and sister, absentmindedly missing an important meeting with his backers.

During this trip to Northern England, though, In the Kitchen begins to find its legs. Talking with his father, and even more so his fat, superficial sister, Gabriel is shocked to discover that almost everything he remembers about his childhood, especially his beloved dead mother, is false. What’s more, Ali brings a sharp yet affectionate focus to bear on the lives and attitudes of “real” English people, working-class whites and their deep if passive resentment of the immigrants in their midst.

Ultimately, In the Kitchen is not merely the story of one man’s unwilling journey to self-knowledge. It’s also a keen portrait of a changing nation, a former imperial power losing its identity — it’s no accident the hotel where Gabriel oversees a mongrel staff is called the “Imperial.”

But all this texture and thematic depth is smothered beneath a blanket of unfortunate writing.

Chauncey Mabe, the former book editor for the Sun-Sentinel, can be reached at Visit him on Facebook.

IN THE KITCHEN, by Monica Ali, Scribner, 448 pp., $26.

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