Books Monica Ali's latest is a British state-of-the-nation gothic populated by celebrity chefs, struggling immigrants and multicultaralism's discontents.
In the Kitchen
In retrospect, nobody came out of l'affaire Brick Lane very well. Monica Ali's first novel was published in 2003 to simultaneous fanfare and denunciation. The author was already a star; Granta had named her one of Britain's best young novelists on the strength of her unpublished manuscript. And the book, when it came, seemed to do what was asked of it: its portrait of life among Bangladeshi immigrants in East London was celebrated by a largely white critical fraternity as a dispatch from Britain's alienated and increasingly radical Islamic contingent. The Scotsman wrote that it opened "a new and potentially rich seam in mainstream British fiction". The Evening Standard praised its insights into a "fresh, rich and hidden world". In short, it dished dirt, and in doing so assisted the commentariat in their grand inquiries. Ali's vision of a small world beset by oppression, hypocrisy and militant posturing was taken to be authentic, which is to say, just bad enough to be true. And that, of course, is what many of the real Brick Lane's Bangladeshis objected to.
The novel's heroine, Nazneen, is an illiterate Sylhetti farm girl who finds herself married off as a teenager to Chanu, a council worker twice her age, who lives in the navel of the London borough of Tower Hamlets. Through Nazneen's eyes we are shown a world of dank state housing, busybody neighbours and desperate boredom. Chanu is a failure though he doesn't know it, blinded as he is by pride at his numerous certificates, his degree in English literature, and his Open University non-insights into colonial history. In one of Ali's better - because bitter - jokes, she has Chanu announce grandly, with the clear intention to impress, that: "To be an immigrant is to live out a tragedy." Despite cultivating aloofness from the old-country gaucheries of a faceless horde of "ignorant types", he can't get ahead at the office. He's that recurring figure in the literature of the Indian diaspora, the would-be bourgeois, cousin to VS Naipaul's Mr Biswas. The only way for him is down.
Nazneen endures his company, trims his corns and lets his lectures wash over her. It's an unexciting life, for us as much as her. When a thrusting younger man appears on the scene, the reader shares her relief. Karim is an intermediary who brings Nazneen sewing piecework to supplement Chanu's dwindling income. He also happens to be a political radical, intent on uniting Brick Lane's Islamic community to meet the BNP's local agitators with force. Cue some gentle, White Teeth-ish satire on Islamist politics, complete with fatuous meetings and paltry status contests. It's never dignified to have to squabble over the name of your gang, but Nazneen succumbs to Karim all the same.
If Ali had a colder eye, we could be in Madame Bovary territory by now - the dullard husband, the tawdrily exciting lover, a heroine set to be broken on a wheel of opprobrium. And there's a nice, forensic quality to the way that Nazneen compares her two men: "When Chanu fidgeted he showed his unease. When Karim could not be still, he showed his energy. For a few moments she drifted helplessly on a tide of longing. Her mouth became loose and her eyes unfocused." In such moment, Ali passes as a latter-day naturalist, coolly noting the mechanisms that make up the human animal. But she's ultimately a different kind of 19th-century throwback: sentimental at heart, and prone to comic grotesquery - Chanu with his repulsive body and pompous schemes, or Mrs Islam, a hypochondriac loan-shark who moves about in a cloud of Benylin.
This sub-Dickensian schmaltzy streak is nowhere more evident than at the novel's conclusion. As Sukhdev Sandhu, in one of the novel's rare sceptical reviews, remarked in the London Review of Books, Brick Lane "ends on a note so high that it's difficult to make out if it's meant to be ironic or not". Mrs Islam's wicked witch is dead, Nazneen has escaped her husband and found financial independence, and the government is waving a wand of regeneration over East London. It's absurdly Pollyannaish, and there's little to suggest Ali means it to be read any way but straight.
And so the adulatory reviews now seem a little odd - or at any rate, determined more by some hazy notion of the book's value as reportage than by its merits as fiction. Ali displayed a knack for the offhand but arresting description: the "big, bulging beats" that pump out of cars on the estate, a barber's scissors that "flashed like miniature lightning against dark heads". But such touches only do so much to lift a novel that is by turns ponderous and saccharine, lingering too long over the pianissimo ironies of Nazneen's outsider perspective and never really venturing anywhere difficult. Much has been made of Brick Lane's Victorian feel, and indeed it has exactly the faults of the classic Victorian triple-decker: it's terribly earnest, rather syrupy, and in the end not quite believable.
This is what the book's Bangladeshi critics should have said. Instead, when the BBC interviewed the protesters who turned out to oppose a film adaptation of Ali's novel, it appeared that few of them had read it. That didn't stop a handful of them marching under placards proclaiming "Monica's book... full of lies" and threatening to burn copies of it (another thing they apparently never got around to). Ali found herself tagged as the new Salman Rushdie, and indeed it was Rushdie himself who flew to her defence when Germaine Greer weighed in on the side of the protesters. Greer complained that Brick Lane, the first major appearance of Britain's Sylhettis in literary fiction, "had the force of a defining caricature". The book's subjects "did not recognise themselves" - an unusual criterion for any sort of art. Rushdie huffed back that Greer was "philistine" and "sanctimonious" and her intervention "not unexpected". All told, it was an undignified episode. Ali's press appearances from then on had a strained quality.
Her second book, Alentejo Blue, scarcely works up the enthusiasm to be a novel at all. A congealed series of vignettes all set in the same unlovely Portuguese backwater, characters recur and a narrative of sorts emerges, but it's underpowered and shapeless. The cast of restless locals and shiftless Brit expats served more as a statement of intent - Ali wasn't to be confined to a world of Bangladeshi immigrants - than a motivated imaginative exercise. Still, its nastiness came as a welcome contrast to the extravagances of Brick Lane: it's a gleefully ugly and morbid book in which sex is always gruesome, ambition vapid, and hope of any kind a set-up for a striptease of disappointment. But Ali didn't seem at ease in the Portuguese setting, not least because she kept populating it with Brits. Word that Ali was returning to London for her third book came as something of a relief.
In the Kitchen is a sort of state-of-the-nation gothic, an indigestible bolus of earnest social commentary wrapped in multiple sugar coatings, all borrowed from the BBC at its pandering worst. There are would-be celebrity chefs, blunt-talking entrepreneurs, and Hotel Babylon-style peeks at the dirty laundry of the hospitality business. The plot never strays far from last year's talking points: the hubris of credit-fuelled hedonism, the problem of tracking immigrants, the Very Real and Legitimate Concerns of Britain's White Working Class. A character in an Anthony Powell novel once complained that reading WH Auden was like paging through back issues of New Statesman; In The Kitchen is a bit like getting stuck in an interminable rerun of What the Papers Say.
Its hero is Gabriel Lightfoot, the head chef at a creaking-yet-corporate Victorian hotel in central London. His staff are a piratical band of agency temps and illegal aliens, pimps and former child soldiers. His bosses are spivs and wideboys with dodgy connections, and the only thing standing between him and the outer darkness of middle-aged bachelordom is a broody nightclub singer to whom he can't quite commit. The hotel, by the way, is called the Imperial, as if it isn't sufficiently clear what Ali is getting at. She has developed a weakness for these winking names: by the time the novel is out, we have seen Gabriel venture where angels fear to tread, and in the process land himself with an emaciated Eastern European dependent called Lena ("leaner", presumably).
As the novel begins, Gabriel is planning to escape the Imperial, launch a "classic French" restaurant with a pair of business partners, and maybe bag a Michelin star. Then the accidental death of a Russian porter in the hotel basement leads him to start asking questions about where the members of his staff come from, where they go, and who stands to benefit. He invites Lena, a young prostitute whom he finds slinking around the scene of the death, to shack up with him; a puzzling move not well-accounted for in the text. Indeed Gabriel and reader alike spend the rest of the novel wondering where it came from. Gabriel also ceaselessly torments himself about his faithlessness, his lust and his part in the barbarities of sex trafficking. Tormenting himself is what Gabriel does best, and Ali lays on the causes with a trowel. His proud northern millworker of a father is dying of colon cancer in a Lancashire transformed by immigration; his grandmother is spouting the BNP's most cogent position statements as she wanders into dementia; he learns, belatedly, that his late mother suffered from bipolar depression. Even his nephew and niece have gone emo. If it telegraphed "relevance" in the Britain of 2007 or 2008, you can be sure it touches Gabriel somewhere tender.
Alas, he's inserted into so many plots that we hardly know him. Gabriel the grieving son, the ambitious chef, the bullying boss, the social historian, the liar and frequenter of prostitutes, the crusader for social justice - they don't seem like the same man. Ali solicitously builds up his backstory and rummages constantly among his thoughts, but he never really comes to life as Nazneen did in the earlier novel, for all its faults. Nazneen fascinates because we get to watch her watching the world. In the end, Gabriel registers as little more than an echo chamber for some talking-points on the discontents of multiculturalism - dim ones, at that. At one point Gabriel sees a woman in a burqa and is overcome with envy. "The thing was, that woman - these women - they'd decided there was only one way to look at things," he thinks. "All your answers, ready made. Not like the rest of us." Later, as his mental state deteriorates, he asks himself: "What am I? A nobody? A nothing? A zero? A hollow man?" Well, he is a bit. Ali might respond that this was her point from the start, that the foundations for personality have been lost somewhere in the fracturing of modern Britain. That sounds a bit overblown, though, and also like a convenient excuse for a forgettable character. Brick Lane had Nazneen and Chanu, both of whom survive in the memory despite - indeed, because of - their roiling backdrop. Chanu's pomposity and doggedness; Nazneen's slow-dawning sense of adventure: these are the sorts of traits that make fictional characters come to life (even if they end up doing so in unbelievable ways). Gabriel and In the Kitchen, by contrast, disperse like a puff of steam.
Ed Lake is a features writer for The National.