Serving the surreal

When British author Monica Ali published her first novel, Brick Lane, in 2003, some reviewers compared her to Charles Dickens, thanks to the book's exuberant exploration of class and culture clash in London's East End.

Her new novel, In the Kitchen, might be more likely to call up comparisons to Franz Kafka.

The contemporary clash of cultures and classes is vital to this book as well, but its protagonist stumbles into a surreal journey that leaves the reader questioning whether the character or the world has gone mad.

At first glance, Gabriel Lightfoot looks like a man on the verge of success. Raised in a small British mill town, at 42 he has worked his way up to head chef of Jacques, the restaurant in London's Imperial Hotel, once grand and striving to be so again. He has a smart, sexy, devoted girlfriend, a jazz singer named Charlie. And he has a couple of happy secrets: He's working on a deal to open his own restaurant, and he's planning to propose to Charlie.

But he's also dealing with a lot of stress: working long hours managing a large kitchen staff that's a miniature United Nations of immigrants, sparring with his partners in the new business and grappling with the news that his father has terminal cancer.

Gabe's already taut nerves get twanged a little harder when a kitchen porter is found dead in the hotel basement. Yuri is a Ukrainian, an older man whom no one knows much about. One of the junior chefs goes downstairs to fetch supplies and finds Yuri's nude body on the floor, a pool of blood around his head.

His death seems accidental, but police swarm the hotel. "It's on your patch," Gleeson, the insufferable restaurant manager, tells Gabe, though what he's responsible for isn't exactly clear.

It becomes apparent that Yuri had been living in the bowels of the hotel, and Gabe finds himself drawn back to the dead man's makeshift quarters.

There he finds the mysterious scraps of a life, and something more concrete: Lena, another kitchen porter who has been missing since Yuri's death. The young woman is another immigrant, from Belarus, and Gabe knows even less about her than he knew about Yuri.

Skinny and somber, Lena flees the first time he sees her underground. But a few nights later she's waiting for him when he leaves work, clearly homeless, and on an impulse he barely understands he invites her to stay with him.

Soon he is obsessing about, and having sex with, the enigmatic Lena. He is also having a recurring dream in which he returns to Yuri's underground room, finds his body again and feels compelled to inspect it, inch by inch.

Lena and Yuri haunt him while he tries to keep the complex ballet of the kitchen running smoothly. Ali vividly paints the staff he directs, and at first we see them as Gabe does, almost like actors on some hip multicultural sitcom: the nurturing West Indian woman, the bawdy joker from Moldova, the meticulous and ambitious East Indian, the eccentric Scotsman, the theatrical Frenchman, the Liberian with the sinister scar, the Russian full of pithy stories, who tells Gabe, "This is what stories are for, to make order from the chaos of our lives."

But as Gabe's life starts to slip its moorings, he learns more about theirs, sometimes by accident, other times because he is trying to make order out of chaos for himself.

What he learns is not always pretty. The tremendous flow of immigrants and refugees from chaotic countries to richer, more stable ones is always shaped and dammed by exploitation, abuse and even slavery, as Gabe comes to understand when Lena tells him she is fleeing after being forced into prostitution.

Ali weaves Gabe's exposure to the underside of the economy with flashbacks to his past in the mill town, when (at least as far as a young boy knew) work was honest and the world was uniformly English. It's a world that is already slipping away — Gabe's sister hopes to get a job at the mill where their father worked when it reopens as a museum — just as his father is slipping away.

As the old man gets sicker, Lena becomes more demanding, Charlie finds out about Lena and dumps Gabe, the restaurant partners get antsy, and Gabe begins to suspect the restaurant manager and his grill cook are involved in some sinister plot.

Despite his angelic name, Gabe makes a visit to the modern underworld. Ali handles Gabe's deteriorating mental health with such subtlety that it's impossible to pinpoint the moment at which he breaks down and his suspicions become delusions. Because she takes us there so skillfully, we walk that harrowing road with him.

This is not just one man's breakdown, though. It's no accident Gabe works at a place called the Imperial — with In the Kitchen as in Brick Lane, Ali, the daughter of a Bangladeshi father and a British mother, is working with themes of the fall of empire and the rapidly shrinking globe.

On first reading, I didn't buy the novel's final chapter. It seemed to me Gabe had achieved too quick and easy a redemption. And then I realized: It wasn't redemption. It was retreat.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

In the Kitchen

By Monica Ali

Scribner, 436 pages, $26.99

Serving the surreal 07/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 4, 2009 5:30am]

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