Monica Ali’s third novel, IN THE KITCHEN, is her best book
yet. It revolves around an aspiring executive chef, Gabriel
Lightfoot, depicted as a troubled man who can never quite get a
hold of that dream he is forever chasing. The story opens with a
bang, when one of Gabe’s co-workers is found dead in the
basement of the kitchen. No one is sure if foul play was involved.
Why was he even down there in the first place? The clues to this
mystery point to the possibility that Yuri was living in the
basement and was not alone.
The only other clue is Lena, an unkempt surly Belorussian with a
very mysterious past, who has ties to Yuri but no one knows how.
Lena is not talking to anyone and refuses to give Gabe any answers.
The only thing he knows is that she is an employee working under
him, and for reasons even he cannot explain, he is compelled to
seek her out after she is let go from her job. He becomes obsessed
with Yuri’s death, which leads to an obsession with Lena,
despite the fact that he already has a girlfriend in what seems to
be a rock solid relationship. Against his better judgment, Gabe
promptly offers his apartment to Lena when his girlfriend is out of
town, and one wonders what his true motives are.
What the reader assumes will be a murder mystery turns into a
psychological study of a man whose life slowly falls apart before
our eyes. As Gabe broods over the mystery of Yuri’s death, he
is also dealing with a dying father, which forces him to delve into
his childhood, trying to understand what happened in the past that
created the strained relationship he has with his father today. His
almost naïve unconditional love for his deceased mother and
memories of her eventually lead him to things he never understood
about her or was even aware were happening.
He is distant with his immediate family, but is forced to
acknowledge that his father is ill, thus bringing him back into
contact with a sister he no longer recognizes, a father who has
remained a distant figure due to some event in Gabe’s
childhood, and a grandmother who is in desperate need of a
caretaker 24/7. And on top of it all, Gabe still must address the
fact that he can’t seem to get rid of Lena, who is now living
in his apartment, and his girlfriend has returned from her trip.
There are only so many lies he can keep straight.
Readers may find Gabriel a very unlikable character, but it
can’t be denied that Monica Ali has successfully written a
complex character study that will force one to read the book to the
very last page. I, for one, just had to learn how everything turned
out for him. His life is in total disarray because of one seemingly
random event. When you think Gabe has hit rock bottom, think again;
it actually gets worse. One can’t help but feel sorry for
him, but at the same time, he made the choices that brought all
this upon him. IN THE KITCHEN is a good story, but ultimately you
may not have any pity for Gabe whatsoever.
Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton (Ratmammy@lofton.org) on January 22, 2011
In the Kitchen