Saturday, January 29, 2011

Look Closer. Monica Ali, In The Kitchen

In Case You Missed It

In the Kitchen, Monica Ali, Scribner, 2009

Gabriel Lightfoot, the executive chef of the restaurant of The Imperial Hotel, has gone his whole life not really quite seeing other people. He's been very busy working his way up through the ranks and is secretly preparing to launch his own restaurant. When he is forced to pay attention to them, his employees, bosses, and family- each with their quirks, needs, and particularities - tend to annoy him more than anything else.

Two events force Gabriel out of his comfort zone. One of the kitchen workers dies in an accident in the catacomb storerooms below the restaurant, and Gabriel learns that his father is dying of cancer. Suddenly, Gabriel, who never had much time or inclination for observation or introspection, finds himself unusually entangled in the lives and emotions of the people around him, and begins questioning everything. His childhood is not quite what he believed it to be. His employees lives are far more complicated and tragic than he ever could have imagined. As he takes the time to know his father better, Gabriel begins to wonder is his whole life a "house of cards"?

Monica Ali eloquently depicts the lives of immigrants in British society and illuminates the complex relationships that evolve between inhabitants of the "old" and the "new" England. Gabriel grew up in a tight-knit community of white mill workers and their families, but the town of his childhood has long since become a new and different tight-knit community of mostly Pakistani families. The concept of complicity, both intentional and unintentional, is also central to the plot and to Gabriel's eventual self-realization. In the wake of the accident, Gabriel offers shelter to Lena, an Eastern European trafficking victim, and employee he had barely even noticed before. As his desire for her grows, and he unravels, he becomes acutely aware of the exploitation that exists around him, and that he himself is unintentionally a part of. The plot builds to a crescendo, Gabriel is stripped to the emotional core, and the book comes to a very moving resolution.

Gabriel is hard to like as the story opens, and I struggled through the opening chapters of the book. But reading this book is like peeling an onion - each layer draws you deeper and deeper into the core of an intriguing story. As Gabriel begins to open to the people around him so does the reader, and we discover more and more to like and to consider. Look closer. You never know what you will see.


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