Thursday, April 12, 2012

Book Review: In the Kitchen

In the Kitchen is a novel by Monica Ali.  It is a story that starts out with a dead body in the kitchen run by Gabriel Lightfoot, the executive chef.  The beginning feels like a modern detective novel and then kind of veers off into a family drama with political overtones.  The dead body is only passingly thought of actually being murdered.  Dreams of the body continue to haunt the rest of the book.   When the literal body is almost forgotten, the story of someone selling human meat to a restaurant reminds us that a restaurant is the scene of  both literal and figurative deaths.  It is where deaths are transformed into something more.

This novel reminds us of the figurative deaths of many new immigrants.  As Gabriel's life falls apart, most of the other workers in the kitchen seem so much wiser than the executive chef.  Whether it be someone who survives war in Liberia, a depressed pastry chef or an ex-obstetrician, they all have a clearer idea of how the world works.  While Gabriel is making plans behind the back of his current employer to start his own restaurant, he misses the intrigues that are happening in his kitchen, his family and his home life.

Nothing is as Gabriel believes.  Memories of his mother are suspect.  His relationship with his father and his grandmother are based on misreadings by a young man. The most telling lies are the ones that he tells himself about his motives as he destroys a relationship with his fiance.

At its heart, this is a book about human trafficking and our complicity in it.  I don't like the main character.  In most stories where you have the main character as being clueless and making bad choices, you stick around for the  redemption arc.  Right up front, you hear that this is an untrustworthy story told from the perspective of a man whose life is falling apart.  I guess by admitting the shakiness may help swallow the bad stuff that comes along but man, this guy is a real asshole!  Even in the final stanza where we are to feel the warm fuzzies as the protagonist makes some good decisions, I feel uneasy because the body presented in the beginning is still dead.  The dreams of the kitchen are still dead.  I don't feel the transformation of Gabriel and I certainly don't feel better about eating out.  Maybe that is the author's intent.

I wished that there was more about the cooking but the book has very good merit and I am happy to have read it. It is a book whose themes have come back to me even after having finished it two weeks ago.  This is not a feel good book and I am not sure it is a satisfying meal.  Like a high concept meal, I do not feel full and well fed but I am intrigued and intellectually delighted.

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