Sunday, June 07, 2009

Cooking up a tasty tale

British-Bangladeshi writer Monica Ali achieved international fame with the 2003 publication of "Brick Lane," her Booker-shortlisted novel about the lives of immigrant Bangladeshis in London's East End.

She followed it up with "Alentejo Blue" in 2006, a much quieter book than her first, set among a multi-ethnic community in a Polish small town. A significant departure from her first, widely appreciated book, "Alentejo Blue" received at best lukewarm reviews.

Now Ali returns to original form with "In the Kitchen," her meditation on the goings-on at the fictional Imperial Hotel in London's Piccadilly. Her pet themes - migration, multiculturalism, racism, settling in - are in full display, and the prose crackles with verve and vivacity.

The story revolves around Gabriel "Gabe" Lightfoot, the executive chef at the Imperial, who oversees operations at a place run by the U.N. of cooks: nearly every nationality is represented in his kitchen, legally or otherwise. When at the book's beginning, the body of a porter, Yuri, is discovered in the basement, the investigating officer's first instruction to the staff is clear: "I'm not interested in your papers. I'm not here for that."

Ali is a "straddler" in the clearest sense of the term. Born in Dhaka, she grew up in Bolton, a north English textile town, and finally attended Oxford University. She therefore has firsthand knowledge of the devastation wrought on textile towns across England and how immigration only deepens already existing social fissures.

Her character, Gabe, too, is a straddler. Working in the metropolitan heart of London, he is nevertheless aware of the racism that runs like dark blood through Blantwistle, his hometown in north England.

When he learns from his sister that his father is dying of cancer, Gabe travels north to visit. In touching sequences, Ali builds upon the changed landscape of Gabe's boyhood against his real worries at work in London.

Gabe's romantic life is as complicated. While he has a healthy relationship with Charlie, a nightclub singer, he begins an obsessive affair with Lena, one of his employees, after he discovers that she has nowhere to live after Yuri's death. Originally from Belarus, Lena had become tangled in a prostitution ring and had sought refuge with Yuri to escape her assailants.

Ali writes with wit and sympathy about the many twists and turns that define our lives. Gabe's increasing sympathy for his employees after he hears Lena's story allows Ali to chart harrowing accounts of what less privileged people in other parts of the world undergo before they have a chance at migrating to a developed country and improving their lot. As a follow-up to "Brick Lane", "In the Kitchen" is a far more mature work.

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This review appeared in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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