Monday, May 11, 2009

monica ali's 'in the kitchen'

Monica Ali turns up the heat in the multicultural kitchen
by Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette May 11 2009

The British-Bangladeshi writer Monica Ali has had a lot to live up to since publication of her astonishingly successful debut novel “Brick Lane” in 2003. Ali received a reputed 200,000 pound deal from publisher Doubleday for the novel, and she was chosen by Granta magazine as one of the 20 Best Young British Novelists even before the book had appeared in print."

Brick Lane” made the shortlist of Britain’s most important literary prize, the Man Booker, and it has been translated into some 30 languages and made into an award-winning film. “Brick Lane” is set between Bangladesh and the East End of London and depicts the personal growth of its central character, Nazneen, against a backdrop of migration, racism and the growth of Islamic radicalism. Ali might have been expected to have continued to write within this fictional territory of East encountering West. But her second novel, “Alentejo Blue” (2006), was set among the local and British inhabitants of a small town in Portugal. In contrast to her first novel, it received generally lukewarm reviews.

With her third novel “In the Kitchen”, published recently in the UK by Doubleday, Ali returns to London and themes of multiculturalism and displacement. Her central character Gabriel Lightfoot, originally from the North of England, is the executive chef of the once-grand Imperial Hotel near Piccadilly. He compares his “brigade” of kitchen workers to a UN task force: “Every corner of the earth was represented here. Hispanic, Asian, African, Baltic and most places in between.”

Through the eyes and thoughts of Gabe, Ali explores not only London’s hidden world of poorly paid foreign workers and human trafficking, but also the changes taking place in northern England. South Asian immigrants settled in northern cities several decades ago to work in the textile mills. Now the textile industry has declined, and there is tension between the indigenous and immigrant communities.

Ali herself grew up in the northern English former textile mill town of Bolton. She was born in Dhaka in 1967, to a Bangladeshi father and English mother, but when she was three the family left for England. Ali studied philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at Oxford University, and she now lives in London with her husband and two children.

In Ali’s new novel, 42-year-old Gabe has been running the Imperial’s kitchens for five months. But unknown to his employers, he is planning to set up his own restaurant with two backers, a Labour government minister and a businessman. On the personal front, Gabe is more than three years into a relationship with Charlie, a red-headed nightclub singer with green eyes. She is 38, her biological clock is ticking, and marriage and children seem to be the next step.

Gabe’s map for the future is shaken by the death of Yuri, a Ukrainian kitchen porter whose naked body is found lying in a pool of blood in the basement of the hotel, where it is discovered he had been secretly living. One of the girls working in the kitchen, Lena, has gone missing. Gabe’s world is further rocked by learning in a phone call from his sister that his elderly father, Ted, is dying of cancer. He visits his father and sister in his home town of Blantwistle, where the last textile mill is closing. Memories of his boyhood constantly intrude in the daytime, while at night he is assailed by nightmares of Yuri’s dead body.

Another element in Gabe’s escalating disquiet is his sister’s disclosure that their late mother had suffered from bipolar disorder and had often run off with other men, always returning to the long-suffering Ted. Gabe begins to fear for his own sanity.

When Lena turns up at the hotel basement while Gabe happens to be there, he impulsively invites her to stay at his flat as she has nowhere else to go. Lena had been staying in the basement with Yuri, taking refuge from a man who prostituted and beat her and took her passport after she was trafficked to London. Behind Charlie’s back, Gabe enters up an obsessive relationship with this strange, skinny Belarus girl.

Drawn into the milieu of migrants, Gabe starts for the first time to listen to the often harrowing stories of his kitchen staff. A Liberian, Benny, tells him, “Every refugee knows how to tell his story. For him, you understand, his story is a treasured possession.” [picture of Monica Ali, credit John Foley]

At the same time Gabe becomes aware of a seedy mystery surrounding the activities of the smarmy, and suspiciously wealthy, restaurant manager Gleeson and the grill chef Ivan. He also wants to uncover the reason for the violent antagonism between Ivan and his Moldovan colleague, Victor.

With his mental state deteriorating, Gabe embarks on an odyssey through the underworld of migrant workers. He goes at one point to the fields of East Anglia and works alongside vulnerable immigrants who are are mercilessly exploited by their gangmaster. Monica Ali’s novel numbers a demanding 430 pages. She has assembled the ingredients for an important epic for our times, and there is much to savor in her writing. She has sharp, descriptive powers and an eye for comedy that brings much warmth to her writing. “In the Kitchen” sheds light on the many facets of contemporary Britain. And yet, frustratingly, it is not as satisfying as one would have hoped.

Ali has been almost too ambitious in scope. Juggling such a large cast of characters and nationalities, while handling numerous themes and storylines, requires enormous skill. Ali’s narrative is at times over-diffused, and her writing tends to lapse into flatness.

On the last page of the book, Ali names 20 books and studies – on everything from cookery and the textile industry to sociology, human trafficking and psychology – that she consulted while researching her novel. In addition, Ali has spoken of visiting hotel kitchens and northern former mill towns to carry out research. In her writing it is as if she has been reluctant to let go of some of the fruits of her research, and overlong chunks of information sometimes impede the narrative flow. Certain longer passages of dialogue, which are designed to convey information, come across as unconvincing.

Despite its flaws, “In the Kitchen” is well worth reading. And just as “Brick Lane” was successfully adapted for the cinema, it is not difficult to imagine Ali’s third novel forming the basis of a film or TV drama.

Ali is currently helping publicize the novel through talks and other events in British towns and cities. At the forthcoming Guardian Hay Festival of Literature, Europe’s largest literary festival, she will be in dialogue with the journalist and author Sarfraz Manzoor. A sign of her popularity is that tickets for the event, to be held on May 30, have already sold out and a second one has been arranged for the following day.


El Mariachi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Boring book

Anonymous said...

Agree, Anonymous.