IN THE KITCHEN, by Monica Ali. Scribner, 436 pages, $26.99

 

'Brick Lane," Monica Ali's 2003 novel, brought the Bangladeshi-born author international acclaim and a so-so film adaptation. She followed up her debut with "Alentejo Blue," which was tepidly received by readers and critics alike.

Her latest, "In the Kitchen," ventures into the milieu of an executive chef at a once-grand London hotel. Gabe Lightfoot, the head chef, is no Gordon Ramsay. Instead of hurling expletive-laced insults, he is mild-mannered and the object of daily abuse. He contends with demanding customers and a bullying boss. "We're not talking Michelin and all that crap," he tells Gabe of his expectations. "Just some food you can eat without gagging."

Gabe considers his workplace "part prison, part lunatic asylum, part community hall." The multicultural staff is mostly inefficient and unprofessional. And one day a Ukrainian porter, Yuri, is found naked and dead in the restaurant basement.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Ali piles on complications to make her 42-year-old protagonist's life even harder: Gabe dreams of starting his own restaurant and promises his impatient girlfriend, Charlie, that he'll marry her when it opens - though she might not bother sticking around. An enigmatic young Belarusian woman, Lena, seduces him into an obsessive affair that threatens his future with Charlie. Back in the northern mill town where he grew up, Gabe's father is dying of liver cancer. Oh, and Gabe learns from his sister that during their childhood, their mother suffered from bipolar disorder.

No author should be dissuaded from ambitious aims, so it's commendable that alongside her frenetic plot, Ali tackles themes of human trafficking, class tensions, socioeconomic woes, the decline of community and the struggles of migrant workers in Britain. Yet, she is in pursuit of so many ideas that some are not seen through far enough, while others are overwrought.

Characters such as Gabe's dad serve as didactic mouthpieces for political tirades, resulting in clunky dialogue. And some of the novel's foreigners are embarrassing caricatures. A Frenchman sounds like he's right out of Pixar's "Ratatouille"; Lena's thickly Eastern European utterances recall evil spy Natasha Fatale from "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show": "I have do nothing," she says to Gabe; and "What is name?"

Ali is at her best when she's, well, in the kitchen. The assembly-line pressure is vividly conveyed, recalling Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" (one of several books Ali credits in her acknowledgments). When the lid from a stockpot is lifted, "Steam rose in a column and dispersed, like an idea that could find no words." And here is Gabe sampling dim sum: "The embryonic pink of the pork mince seemed to pulse through the translucent skin. In his mouth, the soft explosion gave way to hot, salty soy and a ginger tang."

Despite many unfortunate detours, Ali does wrap up her overstuffed story in a fairly satisfying way. That she regains control of her narrative makes it worthwhile in the end, but readers expecting the abundant rewards of "Brick Lane" will be disappointed.