two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
By: 
Monica Ali
user_rating: 
0

A-In the KitchenMonica Ali, born in Bangladesh but raised in Great Britain, returns to the rich territory mined in her best-selling, Booker-short-listed debut novel, Brick Lane ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2003)-multiculturalism and the immigrant experience in contemporary England-that earned her comparisons to Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith. Her second novel, Alentejo Blue ( 3 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2006), centers on the lives of British expats living in a small Portuguese village.

The Story: Life is going well for Gabriel Lightfoot, the executive chef at London's respectable Imperial Hotel: at 42, he is about to open his own restaurant and marry his beautiful jazz singer girlfriend. But his well-ordered life begins to unravel when he stumbles across the body of a Ukrainian night porter in a pool of blood in the hotel's musty cellar, and he is suddenly swept up into an obsessive affair with the only witness to the crime, Lena, a tiny, waiflike prostitute from Byelorussia. As he plunges headlong into the bleak, miserable immigrant world teeming just beyond the hotel's doors, Gabriel learns more about prejudice and suffering than he can bear.
Scribner. 448 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 9781416571681

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"[Ali's] pet themes-migration, multiculturalism, racism, settling in-are in full display, and the prose crackles with verve and vivacity. ... Gabe's increasing sympathy for his employees after he hears Lena's story allows Ali to chart harrowing accounts of what less privileged people in other parts of the world undergo before they have a chance at migrating to a developed country and improving their lot." Vikram Johri

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"If Monica Ali weren't such a wordsmith, such a talented scene-builder and examiner of the human soul, her new novel might be an unreadable mess. And it is a mess. But with In the Kitchen, the author of the famed 2003 novel Brick Lane also has delivered an entertaining, poignant tale worth the reading." Karen Sandstrom

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"It's a great start for a potboiler, an opening with all the ingredients: a hectic kitchen, a budding love, a possible murder and one man's simmering, rising ambition. Except that it takes 200 more pages for the heat to kick in." Marie Arana

Observer (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Too often ... there is a sense that characters exist as mouthpieces for opposing views of modern Britain. The mystery surrounding the porter's death loses its tension in all the digression and there is something cartoonish about writing regional accents phonetically (Frenchmen who say 'zis' and Caribbean women who call everyone 'darlin')." Stephanie Merritt

Wall Street Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars
"In general, the characters of In the Kitchen sound like authorial mouthpieces, given to stilted, expository dialogue. ... In the Kitchen is ambitious, but with its one-dimensional characterizations and laggardly pace-it's too long at 436 pages-this novel is, ultimately, hard to digest." Moira Hodgson

Guardian (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"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. ... 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." Christopher Tayler

Telegraph (UK) 0.5 of 5 Stars
"Throughout the book, dollops of didactic and clunky exposition are combined with lines half-inched from episodes of The Bill and passages of insipid mushiness. ... It's hard to avoid the suspicion that Ali is a middlebrow writer, and an essentially frothy one at that, whose 'gritty' choices of subject matter have convinced people she's writing literary fiction." Sukhdev Sandhu

Critical Summary

In the Kitchen, Ali's third novel, received mixed reviews from critics who couldn't help but compare it to the brilliant Brick Lane. Interestingly, although American critics found much to reprove-including an exasperatingly slow start, stereotypical characters, and a surfeit of moralizing that drains the narrative of momentum-they also praised Ali's crackling, vibrant prose and her meticulous research into the inner workings of restaurant kitchens. British critics, on the other hand, uniformly panned the book, complaining bitterly of its flat, uninteresting protagonist and bleak depiction of contemporary England. Though some, like the Cleveland Plain Dealer, felt that the echoes of Ali's former best seller were enough to sustain interest, only diehard fans will likely be able to overlook Kitchen's many flaws.

Cited by the Critics

Down and Out in Paris and London | George Orwell (1933): Cited as the "classic work on the subject" by the Wall Street Journal, George Orwell's debut novel follows the adventures of an unnamed narrator as he navigates the margins of society in the early 1900s, working in a variety of Parisian hotels and restaurants as a dishwasher. This highly readable novel laid bare some of the more shocking practices of the industry and inspired a public reaction like that given to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.