Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 22, 2009

In the Kitchen, by Monica Ali

In the KitchenI enjoyed Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, but this is a plod, and it’s much too long.  It centres on Gabriel Lightfoot, a 42 year old London chef who’s escaped his fate in the mill in the Midlands because (a) the mill has closed down (because British manufacturing has been supplanted by an exploitative service industry) and (b) he’s an ambitious, creative man with great interpersonal skills.  He has a nice, funny girlfriend called Charlie, a daggy family back home, and the prospect of starting up his own restaurant.  The kitchen scenes are well-wrought, and the cast of characters interesting.

It all goes wrong when one of the hotel staff is found dead and Gabriel is sucked into a bizarre relationship with Lena, a victim of the underground economy.  This relationship is utterly unconvincing, and so is Gabriel’s odd behaviour.  It’s a novel in search of a genre – and I won’t be the only reader who wonders for a time if Gabriel is going to become a culinary Murray Whelan

As the story swirls around Gabriel’s disintegrating mind, it explores many issues…Britishness, the modern economy, multiculturalism, education, death, mental illness and racialism.  This catalogue of issues gets tedious after a  while, and I was offended by the proposition that immigrant communities are superior to the host culture which has ‘lost’ the sense of community that used to characterise British life.   None of us feel safe any more in London because of one particular type of immigrant community which has – from within the host culture – bred and continues to nurture, an unforgiveable wickedness.  The exclusion of this issue, when so many others are explored, looks like denial to me.

There’s a fair bit of pontificating from various characters, as if Ali had some things she wanted to get off her chest.  Overall, it doesn’t work, and I found myself skipping bits of it, wanting to get to the end.  Monica Ali was shortlisted for the Booker with her debut novel Brick Lane, in that strange year when Vernon God Little won it.  She needed a better editor for that one too.


  1. I absolutely loved Ali’s Brick Lane, though you are right that a bit more/better editing could have improved it. I was hoping for something else from her that I could really enjoy, but your review of In the Kitchen confirms the impression I have gotten from everything else I have read. I can safely pass on this one. Thanks.


  2. It’s a pity – she’s actually a very good writer, I think. So many good writers today don’t have the nurturing editor that guided novices towards their best work, and it’s a real shame.


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