Review: In the Kitchen by Monica Ali

Review: In the Kitchen by Monica Ali
Monica Ali returns to the themes of national identity, belonging, family and loyalty which she made her own in Brick Lane, writes Stephanie Merritt

In the Kitchen is described in the press release, not quite accurately, as "the follow-up to Brick Lane". Monica Ali's hugely successful debut novel was set among the Bangladeshi community of London's East End and brought to life with comic exuberance the trials of immigrant life in modern Britain. Ali then wrong-footed her readers with her actual follow-up, Alentejo Blue, a slow-paced and elegant series of vignettes about an expat community in rural Portugal, so distant stylistically and geographically from the bustle of Brick Lane that it might almost have been written by a different author. She now returns to more familiar territory with In the Kitchen, which picks up Brick Lane's themes of national identity, belonging, family, loyalty and considers them against the shifting lives of London's migrant workers.

Nowhere is the sense of transience more acute than in a city hotel, and the Imperial Hotel in Piccadilly – Ali's setting – embodies that impermanence: "If the Imperial were a person ... you would say here is someone who does not know who she is." Stephen Frears made use of a similar setting in his 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things, which depicted the world of illegal workers as a perfect breeding ground for crime. Though not so dark, Ali's hotel also fosters an underclass desperate to scam whatever it can on the side and keep below the authorities' radar. When the dead body of a night porter is discovered in the basement, the investigating officer's first announcement is: "I'm not interested in your papers."

Gabriel Lightfoot, the Imperial's executive chef, presides over "a United Nations task force all bent to their work". At 42, his life is on the cusp of change: he has backers ready to finance his dream of opening his own restaurant and he has proposed to his girlfriend, Charlie. But with the discovery of the dead porter, Gabe's certainties begin to unravel. The shadowy figure of Lena, a young eastern European girl enigmatically connected with the death, begins to haunt him; she claims to have been trafficked and Gabe offers her refuge. He learns that his father has terminal cancer, and returns home to the dying Lancashire mill town of his childhood to hear some uncomfortable family secrets; the financiers begin to get cold feet; Charlie learns of his affair with Lena and walks out.

Through the prism of Gabe's crisis, Ali deftly portrays a nation that, like the hotel, is losing its sense of self. The solid, working-class, northern racism of Gabe's family offends his metropolitan sensibilities, but the sense of nostalgia for a more cohesive community is poignant. In a prescient scene, given that this novel is set in the days when you could smoke in bars, Gabe worries about the fragility of a debt-based economy, and Fairweather, the New Labour junior minister backing the restaurant, smoothly reassures him that this is not the issue: "Can you ride it, whatever it is? That's what you should be asking."

Above all, this is a novel about the world of work – how it has changed and how it defines us. Ali has chosen a workplace that, though familiar through television shows, remains fascinating, and the kitchen scenes are superb. Too often, elsewhere, there is a sense that characters exist as mouthpieces for opposing views of modern Britain. The mystery surrounding the porters death loses its tension in all the digression and there is something cartoonish about writing regional accents phonetically (Frenchmen who say "zis" and Caribbean women who call everyone "darlin"). Though Ali's prose is often beautiful and there are flashes of Brick Lane's buoyant comedy, Gabe's disintegration never quite engages the reader, who is left feeling better informed but oddly unaffected.


Stephanie Merritt

The GuardianTramp

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