You’re sitting down to dinner in a fine restaurant with a well-regarded chef who has arranged a special four-course dinner just for you. For an opening course, you’re given a selection of fine French cheeses and a lovely glass of French wine. But then the soup comes, and it’s a bowl of hot and sour soup. Even more perplexing, the main course is chicken fajitas. And dessert is cannoli. These are actually all foods that you happen to enjoy, but the meal as a whole doesn’t make much sense. Now imagine that instead of bringing each course in sequence, the waiters bring everything at once. That’s what reading Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen felt like to me. There are plenty of elements that could work in isolation, but they don’t fit together very well.
The main character of In the Kitchen, Gabriel Lightfoot, is the executive chef at the Imperial Hotel in London. He’s hoping to start a restaurant of his own, and he’s found a couple of backers to provide the funds. His relationship with his girlfriend, a nightclub singer named Charlie, is getting serious, but his relationship with his family is complicated, and made more so by his father’s recent cancer diagnosis. With just these ingredients, Gabe’s story seems like a pretty typical tale of the struggle to balance work and personal life. Not a bad story. But there’s lots more.
There’s the hotel porter, a Ukranian man named Yuri, who has been found dead in the hotel basement. There’s the mysterious young woman named Lena, whom Gabe decides to shelter in his home. She seems to be connected to Yuri’s death, as well as to the London sex trade. There’s the illegal activity that the restaurant manager seems to be involved in. And then there’s the changing landscape of Britain itself, which Gabe’s father and grandmother complain about incessantly. And there are Gabe’s memories of his mother’s unstable behavior, possibly attributable to bipolar disorder.
Ali’s narrative bounces from thread to thread, quick cutting from the Imperial kitchen, to Gabe’s memory of visits to the mill where his father worked, to Gabe’s worries about a meeting with his backers, to his musings about the attractions of Lena’s young body. I think Ali is trying to give readers a sense of the chaos in Gabe’s mind, but the effect is often jarring, and the narrative is hard to follow.
There are parts of the story that I liked. The workplace comedy had potential; Gabe works with a lot of colorful characters from all over the world, but they are not well-developed. The family story has some interest, but again, it’s never fully explored. The cultural changes that time and globalization have brought could fill a whole book. And there’s lots of gritty psychological drama involving Gabe’s inexplicable attraction to Lena. Ali’s writing is good enough to carry any one of these stories. But the book never fully commits to being a workplace comedy, a family drama, a social commentary, or a psychological thriller.
Late in the book, Gabe has an insight about himself that I think applies to the novel as well:
His mind was too restless, and he needed to get a few things straight in his head. For example, was he heartbroken about Charlie or not? The answer seemed to be sometimes yes and sometimes no, which wasn’t helpful in the least. Leave that one aside for now. What about Lena? Was he her knight in shining armor, or was he currently the last in a long list of men who had abused the poor girl? Being painfully honest with himself, he had to say he did not know. Maybe the honest answer was both. Even his career, the straight line he thought he’d walked, was twisted and looped now that he looked back on it, half hidden in the undergrowth.
There are some good books hidden in the undergrowth here, but Ali doesn’t dig in and bring out those stories for her readers to see. I like some ambiguity in my fiction, but I also like a novel that knows what sort of story it’s attempting to tell. In the Kitchen, I’m sorry to say, never chooses a clear direction, and so we’re left with a novel that, like its hero, never feels quite sure of itself.