By Marie Arana
Sunday, June 14, 2009
IN THE KITCHEN
By Monica Ali
Scribner. 436 pp. $26.99
When Monica Ali burst onto the scene in 2003 with her brilliantly imagined, nimbly fashioned, powerfully rendered "Brick Lane," critics marveled that a raw first novelist could produce such a Dickensian display of literary skill and human wisdom. The novel -- in which Nazneen, a teenage girl, travels from Bangladesh to London to seal an arranged marriage and wed a much older man -- was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and translated into dozens of languages. Monica Ali became an instant sensation, the darling of multicultural circles, a sure successor to Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie. Exposing the harsh world of immigrant sweatshops in East London, "Brick Lane" raised Muslim hackles and charmed the crustiest of literary critics. Germaine Greer denounced it. Prince Charles defended it. James Wood called it a great and daring literary achievement. The future seemed bright and boundless for Monica Ali.
Her second novel had a different trajectory: "Alentejo Blue," a string of loosely conjoined stories about English characters adrift in a Portuguese village, seemed listless and pale by comparison. Publishers Weekly called it "a dirge." "All too random," mourned Bookmarks. "Unrelentingly depressing," came the verdict in The Washington Post. According to Nielsen Bookscan, whereas "Brick Lane" had climbed U.S. bestseller lists and sold more than 200,000 copies, "Alentejo Blue" squeezed out a mere 6,000 in sales. If nothing else, Ali had proved she could shift gears. She had bucked the impulse to write the same book and pander to the market. She had left Bangladeshi neighborhoods, moved on.
In her latest novel, "In the Kitchen," Ali bravely moves on again. And, once more, she does so with mixed results.
The setting this time is the Imperial Hotel, a venerable but decaying London establishment. The hero is Gabriel Lightfoot, a middle-aged chef on the cusp of too many changes: His father, a retired North England mill-worker, is dying of cancer, yet Gabe's life seems poised for success. He is about to propose marriage. If he can hang on just a few more weeks, a bold career leap beckons. For all the obstacles a grueling life in the kitchen can offer, Gabe seems to have all the right instincts. He's made mostly good decisions. He knows what it takes to run a tight restaurant. He is in love with a green-eyed jazz singer who returns his affections. He has saved enough -- made enough contacts -- to leave the Imperial and open his own place.
But by the time we know this, a dead body lies in Gabe's way. "When he looked back," we read in the book's very first sentence, "he felt that the death of the Ukrainian was the point at which things began to fall apart." Yuri, the night porter, is found in the hotel's moldering basement, his bloody corpse a herald of more disaster to come. What follows will forever alter Gabriel Lightfoot's world.
So far, so good. 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.
Let's forget for a moment those first 10 or so chapters of endless verbiage. Before the story is over, the reader will encounter a prostitution ring, a tiny, birdlike lover, a tragic immigrant world that lies just beyond the walls of the grand Imperial. When all is fully told, no one will be exempted from that world. Least of all the flawed man at the center of the tale.
But Ali's novel creeps along like your grandmother's knitting. You wind through passages like this: "The walls were covered in fleur-de-lis wallpaper in a richly subtle color somewhere between silver and beige. . . . Overall the effect was not displeasing though somewhat precariously contrived. . . . A party of women -- polished skin, bouclé and velvet, liver-spotted hands -- set down their forks and exclaimed." It weaves ahead through clichés and repetitions, protracted and pointless conversations, until you reach page 150: The tiny, birdlike prostitute is now in Gabe's bed, the hotel manager is conducting shady business with housekeeping, our hero is spiraling into madness, his father is in cancerous freefall, and the beautiful jazz singer is fit to be tied.
Like flares in a night sky, those turns in the story urge you on. Then on page 241 you stumble on this arresting sentence: "London was all belly, its looping intestinal streets constantly at work, digesting, absorbing, excreting, fueling and refueling, shaping the contours of the land." You've gotten this far because you read "Brick Lane," believed that its author deserved her laurels, suspected this novel is worth your time. And here, finally, begins your reward. For the next 200 pages until you reach the last sentence, you won't be able to put the book down, turn off the light. Ali hits her stride.
If you're curious about contemporary literature, you'll read this overcooked novel. You'll skip through the sludge of the early chapters. You'll forgive Ali for going too far, breaking the rules: You'll overlook her narrator's weird lurch into madness (not allowed, unless your name is Dostoyevsky). You'll shrug off the repellent seductress (ill-advised, no matter who you are). You'll forget that there are too many cooks in the kitchen and not enough feasts on the table (where, oh where, is the monumental macaroni of Giuseppe di Lampedusa? Or the bright cheeses and crisp biscuits of Iris Murdoch?). Because, by the end, all the plates are spinning.
And then, voilà, there's dessert. --
Marie Arana, a former editor of Book World, is currently a Kluge Scholar at the Library of Congress. Her most recent novel is "Lima Nights." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.