Breakdown. The protagonist of Monica Ali’s new novel In the Kitchen is chef Gabriel Lightfoot, a character who becomes increasingly difficult to spend time with as he delves deeper into a nervous breakdown over the 436 pages of the book. Gabriel is the executive chef at the once-grand Imperial Hotel in London, and he leads a kitchen crew of hard workers from many countries. Gabriel’s life is packed with changes: his father is dying; he proposes marriage to Charlie, a jazz singer; he’s agreed to leave the Imperial and open a new restaurant with two partners that will be named “Lightfoot’s.” Following the death of a kitchen porter, Gabriel is haunted by a recurring dream and his life begins to spiral out of control. Gabriel wants to know who he is and what is meant to do in life. Ali’s descriptions of kitchen life capture the humor, challenging work conditions, and dictatorial nature of this environment. Her writing throughout the novel is excellent, in dialogue, description and language. A side plot about the exploitation of immigrant workers allows for some structure to the novel, but seems somewhat out of place in what is basically a psychological novel about a midlife crisis with concurrent erratic behavior and a nervous breakdown. In the Kitchen is finely written, gloomy, and may appeal most to readers who are willing to spend time admiring a writer’s skill no matter what the plot or how hard it is to spend time with as unsympathetic a protagonist as Gabriel Lightfoot.
Rating: Three-star (Recommended)