In the Kitchen, Monica Ali, Random House 2009
I missed this when it came out - I had read Brick Lane soon after it was published, and while I found it interesting I don't think I liked it much. I am going back to it now though.
This is a book about identity, about Britishness, about London, about England, about family, and about what it means to be an immigrant, an exile, illegally where you are, or on the run from those who want to kill or arrest you. It is also about madness. It is set in the world of work which is done while most people are asleep or entertaining themselves: the world of the mostly immigrant hotel and restaurant workers of London, though it shifts at times to a mill town in northern England and briefly to rural Norfolk. It is a detective story, and it is a history of a part of England. It is dense, tense and exciting. Its hero is the improbably named Gabriel Lightfoot, and he is the head chef in a London hotel. Much of the action takes place in the hotel kitchen. It contains some of the best writing about work, and people at work, that I have ever read. I immediately saw the book as a stage play, and while I have no idea whether Monica Ali intended this, it would work beautifully that way. Let me adapt it for you, Monica.
A theme is "This is who I am. This is what I am." (p. 291). Statements like this are made regularly throughout the book, almost like a chorus. It is set some time between 2003 and 2006 (Troops Out Of Iraq, smoking still allowed in pubs). It begins with a body in a cellar, and it ends with a family in which a father is dying, a grandmother has dementia, and a brother and sister talk. And the finality is a coruscating depiction of a bipolar man going utterly over the top. Ali is not able to resist certain obviosities, such as noting that the things whose disappearance is bemoaned by the elderly white working-class of the north of England - large, close families, home cooking, people clubbing together rather than getting in thrall to the banks, everyone knowing everyone else's name and family business - are all to be found today in the Asian community in Britain, whose arrival is believed by those same elderly white people to have destroyed their own communities. Here the elderly father of the family says laconically that everyone knowing your business wasn't always good, especially if you were different. He is referring, though no-one mentions it, to his dead wife's mental illness, and mental illness is feared by all the family, for their own reasons.
Much here is timeless: an exiled Russian, debating power and identity in words that could have been used at any time in the past 150 years; the hero's girlfriend sings torch songs in a nightclub that would not have looked or sounded that much different a century ago. This is England seen, not quite, from the outside. Next time I go to a restaurant in London I will think of this book and its kitchen characters when I see a door marked "Staff Only".
People trafficking is one of the plot themes here. I asked the opinion of someone else who had read this book, to be slightly surprised by the remark that "In The Kitchen" is "not Guardianista". It is not, and it had not occurred to me to think of that particular strand of thought in this context. Even the most idiotic or deranged contributors to "Comment is Free" don't tend to blame Bush'n'Blair for people trafficking. But I could see the point.
Read it, and I defy you to put it down during the chapter on Gabriel's odyssey. Inside a chef's head, looking out at England.