At the start of Monica Ali’s third novel, In the Kitchen, executive chef Gabriel Lightfoot fears he has bitten off more than he can chew. His multi-ethnic staff is unruly, his girlfriend wants more from their relationship, his father is ill, his secret plans to open his own dining establishment threaten to unravel, and one of his porters has just turned up dead in the basement of his London restaurant. For a while, Gabe keeps things under control, erring on the side of both caution and obligation. But, after he agrees to help his former employee Lena, a young Belarusian woman with a dark past, his life takes a series of twists that lead him away from his sense of duty and, in turn, from the things he thinks he wants.
Ali’s highly acclaimed debut, Brick Lane, centered on Bengali immigrants in London, and it’s easy to see how her interest in multiculturalism and nationality extends to the new novel. However, where the first book was focused and contained, In the Kitchen is surprisingly far-reaching and delightfully nuanced—messy even, in the best way possible. After all, much of Gabe’s neurosis and guilt stems from his Englishness, his ho-hum middle-class worries about tea and football and cancer in the face of Lena’s concerns about human trafficking, poverty and horrific violence. As a way to assuage this guilt, he takes her on as his cause worth fighting for. But this charity is misguided. The more he tries to help Lena, the more he hurts himself; and the more he seeks to understand the inner workings of his kitchen, the more muddled his life becomes.
Ali doesn’t provide easy answers for either her characters or readers. Gabe is endearingly flawed from page one, making choices that are somehow both admirable and cringe-worthy. But it is precisely this duality that wins readers over as Ali employs her immensely vibrant and critical voice to address yet another side of the complicated intersection between where one comes from and who one is.
Jillian Quint is an Assistant Editor at the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.