Simon Wroe is a former chef, so it’s no surprise that he set his debut novel in a kitchen. What is surprising about Chop Chop, though, is how little Wroe lets this fiendish little book get bogged down in the details of its setting. It’s very much about the chaotic life of a kitchen, but this darkly comic narrative covers so much more, and the result is addictively entertaining.

Wroe’s unnamed narrator (dubbed “Monocle” by his coworkers because of an English degree he isn’t using) sets out for the excitement of London after university and quickly finds himself desperate for a way to pay his rent. He takes a job at a past-its-prime restaurant called The Swan, doing grunt work. It’s a place where anything can happen, and The Swan’s outrageous characters—barbaric head chef Bob, Racist Dave, Ramilov and the beguiling Harmony—push and pull Monocle in different directions, from torture to romance to devilish pranks. Monocle finds himself swept into a world that’s as much battleground as it is kitchen, even as he’s tormented by his past and his parents’ crumbling marriage.

Wroe not only refuses to glamorize what goes on behind this restaurant’s kitchen door, but also refuses to tell his tale with anything but a kind of impish brutality. Bob isn’t just a taskmaster. He’s a slavedriver. Harmony isn’t just a crush. She’s a dream girl. Ramilov isn’t just a comrade in arms. He’s a lifesaver. Everything is amplified in this cramped, sweaty little space, but Wroe still leaves plenty of room for the unexpected, the uncomfortable and the uncommonly funny.

Chop Chop might be fiction, but the truth of the author’s experience shines through. The result is a compelling debut from a mischievous new voice.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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