It was probably a mistake for Monica Ali to call the hero of her third novel Gabriel Lightfoot. The reader thinks of Hardy’s bucolic swains and the reddle-man’s cart disappearing over Egdon Heath, whereas instead there lumbers into view a 42-year-old hotel chef with an incipient bald spot and inadequate leisure. On the other hand, Hardy would doubtless have cocked a knowing eye at the complexities of Gabe’s personal-cum-professional life, the fading nightclub singer avid to marry him and bear his children, and the pair of business associates keen to bankroll a swish Pimlico restaurant with his name above the door.
The first sign that all might not be well below stairs at the Piccadilly Imperial, built in 1878 by a Victorian industrialist and once visited by Charlie Chaplin, comes when Yuri, the Ukrainian night-porter, is found dead in the basement store-room. While the coroner diagnoses a drunken fall — much to everybody’s relief — there are other discoveries to set aside the contused and naked body and the two black binliners containing his worldly goods. Chief among them is ex-waitress Lena, a prostituted waif from Moldova, whom Gabe ends up installing in his flat and, somewhat to his surprise — she is utterly charmless — falling in love with. A close second is the slimy restaurant manager’s people-trafficking scam. Meanwhile, from the northern fastness of Blantwistle, comes news of Lightfoot senior’s mortal illness. Love life a mess, professional future uncertain, family skeletons capering through his dreams, Gabe starts to fall apart.
Like Ali’s best-selling debut, Brick Lane — there is no geographical resemblance — In the Kitchen is a novel about modern urban tribes, diaspora and mono-cultural smash. In a work environment where ‘every corner of the earth was represented’, Gabe and fuddled teenage trainee Damian are the kitchen’s only home-grown staff. The old folk up in Blantwistle lament the end of ‘Britishness’ and a multiculturalism that sets myriad translations of council leaflets against insufficient library books. What might be called the panorama tendency in Ali’s work disables it in several ways, most obviously in her characters’ gratuitous habit of reflecting on the state we’re in. But neither Gabe’s father, discussing nationality tests, or his political chum Fairweather — as clumsily named as the hotel — on the economy, or even Gabe himself talking youth cults with his nephew and niece carry very much conviction. Like some of the dialogue (‘I suppose that everything is for sale’) they are lashed to the narrative rather than growing organically from it.
There is a way, too, in which Ali’s use of language mimics this thematic overload, aiming for metaphorical grandeur when there are more modest targets waiting to be brought down. Good on incidentals, the nagging detail and the sharp psychological fragment — the conversations between Gabe and Lena are wonderfully sparse and uneasy — she is less happy in the realm of the figurative. ‘Five years ago, when he’d tried to set up a business with a couple of inexperienced restaurateurs,’ runs an account of one of Gabe’s previous schemes, ‘it was like three chafing boils which finally exploded, leaving nothing but a big infected mess.’ In much the same way, the hotel proprietor’s laughter resembles ‘a series of heavy objects falling to the floor, lead balls perhaps, something that made you slip out of the way.’
Overlong at 400-plus pages, In the Kitchen redeems itself in its final stretch, when certain of Gabe’s hunches are proved right and others spectacularly wrong, and a great deal of authorial care is expended on a downbeat but more or less redemptive finale. I ended up thinking that, for all her skill in securing the destinies of this vagrant and populous cast, Monica Ali is writing the wrong kind of novel, and that the genuine colour and warmth she brings to her fiction would be better displayed on a smaller canvas.
D. J. Taylor’s latest novel, Ask Alice, is published by Chatto & Windus at £16.99.