- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2009

IN THE KITCHEN
By Monica Ali
Scribner, $26, 436 pages
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

There’s nothing quite like a grand, big city hotel for the setting of a novel: there’s just so much potential for storytelling in this microcosmic slice of life. Authors as different as Arnold Bennett (“Grand Babylon Hotel” and “Imperial Palace”) and Arthur Hailey (“Hotel”) have proved that. Now, British writer Monica Ali, whose novel “Brick Lane” painted such an indelible portrait of Bengali immigrant life in London’s East End, weighs in with this compelling 400-plus-page read.

With the previous novel it was a no-brainer that this was a prime example of a young novelist writing about what she knew. The good news is that, as she has moved into the center of London — and toward a broader look at British society — she has lost none of her acuity and her empathetic insight into the plight of her characters. Clearly, she has delved deep into the world of hotels and her Imperial Hotel in Piccadilly with its “flying buttresses and gargoyles on its Gothic Revival exterior” and its great past (Noel Coward composed songs here, Theodore Roosevelt, the Aga Khan, and Haile Selassie were among the many distinguished guests) passes every sniff test of authenticity. Of course, the Imperial has come down a bit in the world, part of a chain now, but blessed with everything necessary to produce today’s desired cuisine:

“Nikolai, the Russian commis, chopped salad onions with heartbreaking 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 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.”

Ms. Ali’s prose has an immediacy about it, an ability to summon up the sights, smells and feelings of such a scene; and, more important still, the atmosphere of the place. The names of those who people the kitchen show that they are a veritable United Nations of nationalities and, as the story develops beyond the confines of the hotel, a picture of a genuinely polyglot, poly-ethnic Britain begins to appear.

The novel begins with a murder and the hotel seethes with passions of all sorts, not least in the food-preparation areas, where danger and an atmosphere of constant tension are apparent. This kitchen brings to mind the memorable speech from that wonderful playwright of the kitchen-sink school, Arnold Wesker, in his most famous play “The Kitchen”:…”Listen, you put a man in the plate room all day, he’s got dishes to make clean and stinking bins to take away and floors to sweep, what else is there for him to do — he wants to fight.” Ms. Ali is marvelously adept at evoking the testosterone-filled kitchen arena, where casual — and not so casual — conflicts erupt unexpectedly. And she has a way, too, with describing food in its less appetizing incarnations as well:

“He breaks a piece of cake. It is at his lips before he smells how bad it is. He picks up a pastry from a glazed gargantuan stack. A fat white maggot wags out at him. But here, over here, is his favorite chicken, and it is fragrant, crisp, perfect. He tears off a drumstick and examines it closely, the lovely bubbled skin, the scent of garlic and herbs. He takes a bite and spits it out. When he looks again at the chicken, he sees it is black with flies.”

What pungency in her prose, what immediacy in the effect she achieves. Attracted, repelled, or appalled by what you are reading here, you cannot help admiring the power of this writer.

Of course, there is a lot more to “In the Kitchen” than food or food- service workers. As the novel opens out into London and then into the English heartland where the protagonist chef Gabriel Lightfoot grew up, it darkens and deepens. And when he enters the strange underworld of immigrant life with its sinister ways, things take a harsher turn. Along the way, there are many of the quotidian travails of life for Gabriel, a mother who died too young, a father afflicted with terminal cancer, a grumpy old grandma who seems set on living forever, fueled by discontent and constant doses of sherry. In the end, the novel turns out to have been a study in displacement in many varieties and on multiple levels. In one way a picaresque voyage for Gabriel, internal as he discovers himself as well as geographic and cultural, in another a Hogarthian picture of a complex society, “In the Kitchen” moves far out of range of that eponymous amphitheater to produce an unsettling but unforgettable novel.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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