Sunday, May 17, 2009

Stodgy Fare

This appeared in today's The Sunday Express


Considering that there’s a mysterious death on the very first page of Monica Ali’s third novel, it's surprising how turgid the bulk of In the Kitchen turns out to be. This, on the face of it, is the story of Gabriel Lightfoot, executive chef at the Imperial Hotel in London, a Victorian establishment that, despite several renovations, is clearly past its prime.

Gabriel Lightfoot – neither angelic nor swift on his feet – is in his early forties, with ambitions of opening a restaurant of his own, and in talks with sleazy promoters to make this come about. However, when the body of Yuri, night porter and Ukrainian immigrant, is found in the basement, the chef’s ordered life begins to come apart at the seams. He develops a strange and intense obsession for Lena, another porter from East Europe, inviting her to stay with him, and this liaison puts a strain first on his relationship with his girlfriend Charlie, a spunky nightclub singer, and then on his mental health itself.

Much of the action of the book, but by no means all of it, takes place in the hotel’s kitchen and its environs, and the author takes pains to recreate the world of an executive chef, with his gustatory and administrative responsibilities. We learn about the selection of cheeses, the preparation of desserts, the duties, grades and volatile moods of kitchen personnel, the choices leading to the determination of a menu and – pay attention now, this could be important -- the temperature below which custard gets lumpy.

The following paragraph, for instance, is entirely representative of this sort of thing: “Nikolai, the Russian commis, chopped salad onions with heart-breaking deftness and speed. Suleiman hovered by the Steam’N’Hold waiting for his souffle with evident anxiety, as though it were his firstborn son. Victor moved between the Bratt Pan, wilting off spinach, and the combi-oven, loading up potato rostis and cubes of butternut squash. A commis dropped a bowl of peelings and everyone clapped. Benny ran over to help him and ran back to his station, wiping his hands. A spit of fat from a wok hissed in the blue burner flame. In Ivan's empire the air pulsed with heat so that the grill chef appeared hazy, as though he were a mirage. He slapped a couple of steaks on the charcoal grill and took a hammer to a third, the sweat darkening the back of his white coat.”

Now, if this seems all too familiar, it’s because such territory behind the scenes in a large kitchen servicing a busy restaurant’s needs has already been staked out by Bill Buford in Heat or Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, among others.

That apart, Ali’s prose is quiet, undemonstrative, and in no hurry to score points. (With the occasional lapse such as when Charlie is described as being “as lovely as a summer’s day”.) She carefully delineates Gabriel’s shifting states of mind, the geography of London that he passes through, the interiors of restaurants and cafes he inhabits, and his current and childhood homes, among other locales.

Temperamental goings-on in the kitchen aren’t, however, the only thing that In the Kitchen is about. Gabriel also tries to mend fences with his father, a former textile mill worker who’s been stricken with cancer; repair a fractious relationship with his sister Jenny; and come to terms with memories of his mother, revealed to be suffering from bipolar disorder. His past, his present, his recurring nightmares and his clunky discussions on free will versus determinism with Nikolai, kitchen hand and Russian √©migr√©, all contribute to his breakdown: “What if his life were a series of blunders based on misreadings, on misconceptions, on a series of childish mistakes? If he made choices without understanding, what kind of choosing was that?”

The book, then, posits an individual’s dire predicament with shifting ideas of England old and new, and as though to underline this ambition, there are also tepid debates on multiculturalism, on the state of the economy and on an evolving national identity. Unfortunately and inevitably, the phrase that comes to mind at this point is: “bite off more than one can chew”.

Though some scenes – such as Gabriel’s attempted rapprochement with Charlie -- are undeniably powerful, for large sections in the middle the dough is stretched very thin. The central character’s circumstances don’t change all that much, and the death of Yuri at the beginning comes across as an all-too-convenient ploy to capture the reader’s interest. Ali’s depiction of the condition of immigrants from Eastern Europe and what this is doing to England doesn’t shed much new light on the subject, and there’s an uneasy coupling of this with Gabriel’s own private crisis.

The upshot is that one finds oneself increasingly distanced from the chef’s predicament and, therefore, from this purported condition-of-England novel itself. The novelist may have selected with ingredients with care, but the outcome is decidedly stodgy.