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BOOK REVIEW

‘In the Kitchen’ mines uneasy culture clash

By Thrity Umrigar
Globe Correspondent / October 27, 2009

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All the ingredients for a sizzling tale are present: A sudden death that may or may not be accidental. A middle-age chef on the verge of a breakdown. Sexual obsession. An illicit affair. A nefarious plot involving human smuggling.

But Monica Ali’s new novel, “In the Kitchen,’’ feels a little, well, overcooked. As if it stayed in the oven a little - maybe 50 pages - too long.

The book starts out simply enough. Gabriel Lightfoot is the chef at London’s Imperial Hotel, with dreams of opening his own restaurant. With investors lined up, and a beautiful lounge singer, Charlie, whom he hopes to marry, Gabe is a man who believes that his life is about to get a jump-start any day now. A compulsive list-maker, Gabe is handicapped by his inability to complete even the most mundane of tasks.

Gabe’s ambling but contented life is upended when the body of a Ukrainian kitchen worker, Yuri, is found in the dungeons below the kitchen. An inquest rules the death accidental, but Gabe, who has seen the corpse, is haunted by the sight and dreams of the dead body every night.

Another kind of haunting soon begins, this time in the form of Lena, an enigmatic, waif-like prostitute from Belarus, who was hiding in the basement with Yuri to escape her pimp. Gabe is inexplicably drawn to Lena, who is living in London illegally, and in one of the novel’s improbable moments, asks her to move in with him. Much like all the other resolutions on his list, Gabe fails in his daily resolve to stop sleeping with the mysterious, taciturn Lena, whom he distrusts but is helplessly drawn to.

The affair causes Gabe to lose the woman he intended to marry, which is a pity because Charlie is one of the most engaging and well-rounded characters in the book - wry, introspective, ironic. Her disappearance from the novel is our loss.

One of the ongoing concerns of the novel is Gabe’s inability to communicate with his gruff, dying father, Ted, who, along with Gabe’s grandmother, Nana, are the novel’s two stock characters, seemingly created only to act as defenders of that old, elusive quality called Britishness. Nana, especially, seems to spend her old age railing against Pakistani immigrants while protesting that she is not a “racialist.’’

As Gabe’s clashes with the older generation demonstrate, Ali’s ambitions for this book are greater than merely documenting one man’s midlife crisis. She is trying to say something about the uneasy mishmash of clashing cultures that is contemporary Britain.

Another theme that runs through the novel is the plight of the migrant workers who pour into the country illegally from all over the world and then live shadow lives. These are laudable concerns for a novelist to engage in but the surprising thing - the ironic thing, really, considering that Ali’s first novel, “Brick Lane,’’ was such a convincing portrait of the Bangladeshi immigrant community - is that Ali’s new book works best when it’s in the kitchen.

Two-thirds of the way into it, after Gabe goes off the deep end, Ali loses control of her novel. The plot gets more and more implausible, and the payoff we’ve been waiting for never comes.

But “In the Kitchen,’’ has many smaller rewards. Ted’s bewilderment about Britain’s loss of its manufacturing base and its consumerist culture, feels downright prescient in the face of the last year’s global meltdown. And once in a while, Ali nails the clash of cultures between Britishers and the Pakistani immigrants - such as the moment in Gabe’s working-class hometown, when a man calls out “Merry Christmas,’’ to a Muslim neighbor, clad in a black burqua. As the woman trots away without response, Gabe - who prides himself on being liberal and tolerant - finds himself muttering an expletive. His reaction feels emotionally honest.

More moments such as this would’ve made “In The Kitchen’’ seem like more than standard fare.

Thrity Umrigar is the author of four novels, including “The Space Between Us’’ and “The Weight of Heaven.’’ She lives in Cleveland.

IN THE KITCHEN By Monica Ali

Scribner, 436 pp., $26.99

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