In the Kitchen
Monica Ali
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Buy *In the Kitchen* by Monica Ali online

In the Kitchen
Monica Ali
448 pages
May 2010
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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Gabriel Lightfoot works as an apprentice chef at a salubrious hotel in Piccadilly Circus. But for Gabriel, thinking about what might have been is only going to get him so far as his life carries on in its own sweet way. At forty-two, Gabriel is itching for a break. Fuelled with the best of intentions, he hopes to start his own restaurant and garner the respect of Rolly and Fairweather, his two ingratiating and contemptuous potential business partners, and also provide for Charlie, his lovely girlfriend.

Events, however, conspire to throw Gabrielís world into chaos when Yuri, a Ukrainian porter, is found dead deep in the storage areas below the restaurant. There seems to be little explanation as to why Yuri is found naked, his head awash with blood along with some splashes of what might be alcohol around the face. He must have been drinking, and he brought it all on himself. It was just a sad accident.

Officious manager Mr. Maddox announces the restaurant will be closed and blames Gabriel for failing to take charge of the situation. For his part, Gabriel is aghast at the enormity of his managerial lapse; further complicating matters is the discovery of the Belarusian Lena, a flesh-and-bone illegal pot washer on the run from pimps and drug traffickers.

A carved beauty, a dying swan, this skinny girl becomes Gabrielís irritant, ďhis ghostly girl,Ē when he ensconces her in his flat, her sexual wiles countering his dimming passion for Charlie. Lena lived down the basement with Yuri, but she refuses to tell Gabriel what really happened. Gabriel needs to wipe the slate and brand his indelible mark, and heís blinded by the fact that he just has to tell Charlie about Lena.

Gabrielís father, Ted, is dying of liver cancer. A large part of Aliís colorful novel - and Gabrielís journey - is his inevitable return to Blantwistle, a small town in Lancashire where Ted, his grandmother, Nan, and his overweight sister, Jenny, still live. Surrounded by sympathies and memories with the attendant ďagony of familiarity,Ē Gabriel realizes heís living in a state of suspended animation, in constant oscillation between unbearable tension and annihilating lethargy.

I wanted to like In the Kitchen more than I did. Aliís vibrant descriptions of inner London are evocative and colorful as the city hums its endlessly reverberating morning song, one crescendo piling into the next with the rain, the smells, the billboards, the rumble of cars. Yet the narrative often stalls, large passages devoted to remonstrations on foreigners and progress, a booming UK economy, and the countryís deep-seated xenophobia.

Gabrielísí external dramas and inner conflicts waged against a society constantly on the move are undoubtedly endearing, but as a whole, this novel fails to grab the reader. Iím not sure I even liked the passages in Gabrielís kitchen with his varied assortment of immigrant workers from all corners of the world. In the end, Gabriel is a victim, put on a metaphorical chopping block in a veritable stew of his own making.

The narrative is flat, with overly didactic dialogue that, while politically quite interesting, really fails to inspire. Obviously the changing place of British life is central to the novel and is presented in stark counterpoint to the more traditionally minded world of GabrielĎs father. Unfortunately, though, we must struggle through considerable flotsam and jetsam to get back to the real story at hand - that of Gabrielís struggles in the face of his deeply personal insecurities and failures.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2009

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