the guardian Fri 17 April 2009
Hotels are fruitful settings for fiction. Like theatres, they come with a built-in set of contrasts: front-of-house grandeur versus backstage seediness, institutional permanence versus transient personnel. They can act as reminders that none of us is a permanent resident on this earth, as in Ali Smith's Hotel World. Or they can stand in for larger living arrangements, as the Majestic Hotel in JG Farrell's Troubles comes to stand in for the Anglo-Irish ascendancy and the British empire in general. With their intricate hierarchies and overlapping jurisdictions, hotel staffs are an attractive prospect for a novelist too, offering all the advantages of a small, enclosed community with the bonus of a window on a wider world through the presence of paying guests.
All this seems to have figured in Monica Ali's calculations when she planned her third novel, In the Kitchen. The kitchen in question belongs to "Jacques", the restaurant of the Imperial Hotel, an endlessly refurbished edifice near London's Piccadilly Circus. Built by mutton-chopped Victorian businessmen, and now owned by a multinational corporation, the Imperial functions as a none too subtle reflection of the country's changing face. Interchangeable agency workers of doubtful immigration status do the menial work, while the kitchen - "part prison, part lunatic asylum, part community hall" - is staffed by a cross-section of the London labour market: a soft-spoken Liberian refugee, an inscrutable Russian émigré, a self-improving Indian cook and so on. (For comic relief, there's also a melancholy pastry chef with a heavy French accent.) Gabriel Lightfoot, the executive chef, is one of the few English-born people in the place. "If the Imperial were a person," he thinks, "you would say here is someone who does not know who she is."
"Gabe", as he mostly calls himself, turns out to be having an identity crisis of his own, although it takes a long time to manifest itself. Aged 42, and worried about his bald spot, he has a number of projects in hand, all of which set him up as someone heading for a fall. Being head chef means spending more time on administration than cooking, and also involves him in endless fraught meetings with creepy management types. When not dealing with them, or trying to mediate between his squabbling underlings, he advances his secret plans for his own restaurant, which he's planning to open with the financial backing of an unpredictable businessman and a media-friendly MP. He also has vague plans to marry his girlfriend, a red-haired singer who's variously described as "plump-skinned" and "lovely as a summer's day". Finally, he means to spend more time with his father, a former industrial weaver who's now dying of colorectal cancer in Lancashire.
Ali tries to give Gabe's problems a dramatic shape by tying his growing sense of crisis to a death that takes place in the cellars beneath his kitchen. One day Yuri, a Ukranian porter he's barely noticed before, is found down there in a pool of blood. During the police investigation, Gabe locks eyes with a porter named Lena, a skinny young woman from Belarus who seems to know more about Yuri than she's saying. Implausibly abruptly (Ali gives him a fever to smooth out this difficult transition), Gabe has installed her in his flat, begun learning her story of human trafficking and abuse, and developed an unreciprocated sexual obsession. Here the reader starts expecting his world to unravel in tandem with his horrified investigation of the market mechanisms supplying him with workers. Before that happens, though, the novel piles up background and non-dramatic incident in a way that broadens its thematic range at the expense of narrative drive.
In the Kitchen works best as a novel about work. Ali has done her homework on restaurant kitchens and weaving, and uses both as sustained metaphors for contrasting visions of society: the cohesive social fabric nostalgically remembered by Gabe's father and his peers, and the melting pot of Gabe's kitchen in the contemporary world of deregulated labour. Perhaps, the New Labour MP suggests, British identity has itself been marketised: "We talk about the multicultural model but it's really nothing more than laissez-faire . . . Britishness is or has become essentially about a neutral, value-free identity." In this scheme of things, resentment of immigrants - which plays a part in Gabe's working-class Lancashire childhood as well as the exploitative employment practices documented elsewhere in the book - arises in part from envy of clear-cut cultural identities and the presumed social solidarity of immigrant communities. "Fuck you," Gabe thinks at a veiled woman in the street, "for having what I don't."
Unfortunately, these sociological musings are only very cursorily dramatised, being plonked in the mouths of mostly one-note characters: the social Darwinian businessman, the cynically charming MP, the deterministic Russian, the man of working-class rectitude. The dialogue is often clumsily expository, and Ali has trouble mixing Gabe's thoughts with his actions, generally falling back on describing them in alternating paragraphs. But the main problem is the central character himself, who's wooden and oddly characterless in spite of his potentially attention-grabbing attributes, which include a troubled childhood, a propensity to mania and compensatory interest in high-precision French cooking. At no point does the reader believe that this static, passive figure has within himself the passions the plot requires of him. Combined with Ali's humdrum writing, he does fatal damage to a state-of-the-nation novel of commendable ambition - an interesting set of ideas deflated in the execution.