Thursday, May 28, 2009

In The Kitchen
by Monica Ali
Random House, $37.99
Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino
Author photo below by John Fol.

If you’ve ever wanted to know exactly what it’s like inside the kitchen of a London hotel kitchen, more especially inside the head of its executive chef, then Monica Ali’s latest novel, In The Kitchen, delivers in great detail and at great length.
Gabriel Lightfoot is at the helm in the kitchen of The Imperial Hotel, in charge of its motley crew, trying to retain his passion for food as he wrestles with staff rosters and petty politics. Lightfoot is a man with a plan. He’s lined up a couple of rich backers and he’s going to open his own place. Maybe he’ll even win that Michelin star.
But then the chef’s life starts to crumble. It starts with the death of his Ukranian night porter Yuri down in the catacombs below the kitchen where it turns out he’s been living. Next Lightfoot becomes tangled up with Eastern European pot-washer Lena, who seems connected with the death. He offers her a place to stay and then, somewhat improbably, ends up semi-imprisoning her in his home and cheating on his fiancé with her. There’s other stuff going on. His father is dying, he’s being forced to face up to some harsh truths about his late mother and he’s suspicious of some sort of racket going on with the hated restaurant manager Gleeson.

Author Ali is certainly across a lot of issues in this book: the decline of British industry and the fragile state it’s left that country’s economy, ingrained attitudes towards immigrant and the brutal reality of many of their lives, human trafficking, even what it means to be British. She conjures up her settings with accuracy and colour – I particularly loved her description of Lightfoot’s childhood home in the north with Nana ensconced in her wingback chair and on her third sherry. “The kiss of the fire, the babble of voices, the blanketing heat….the whole place heartbreakingly tidy as if nothing much ever happened, which probably it never did.”

But when Ali tries to stage meaningful discussions about stuff like free will things start to feel a bit forced; her characters are used as mouthpieces, her tone becomes didactic.
And ultimately, at 430 pages, this book is much too long. With some judicious editing Ali might have told this story in far fewer pages and made her points with more subtlety.
Nicky Pellegrino is the books editor at the Herald on Sunday where her review of In the Kitchen was first published (24 May, 2009). She is also a well respected NZ-based novelist whose latest book, The Italian Wedding, (Orion), was published in NZ, Australia and the UK last month

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