Thursday, December 10, 2015

London was all belly

In the Kitchen by Monica Ali was not what I expected. I expected something about a kitchen that confirmed everything I'd ever learned about kitchens from watching Chef! and Gordon Ramsay, and, oh yeah, the time I worked in a kitchen where the chef had a temper and ego to vie with that of any televised personality. In the Kitchen was not that book.

In the Kitchen starts with a dead body in the basement, but the book's not about that either.

While I started off rather enjoying it, quite suddenly the protagonist became very unlikeable. I couldn't understand why Ali would do that to her main character, and I spent the rest of the book being befuddled and a little angry about it. I now realize how much of a slow burn this novel is; it's taken a couple weeks for it to properly set in my head.
"My father say, in old days, Soviet days, is easy to tell what is lie. Everything is lie. Now, he says, is more hard. What is truth and what is lie? How we can know?" She pulled her shoulders up by her ears and let them drop. "But he is wrong. There is no truth. Is only a new kind of lie."
Very little of this novel actually takes place in the kitchen. But the kitchen — the idea of "kitchen" — is strongly associated with two things (things Ali has written about before): women and immigrants. Women, of course, belong in the kitchen, but only when that kitchen is a domestic one. It takes a man to run a kitchen like a business, like a well-oiled machine. But it takes the right kind of man, one who stands above the others — the others who work long hours in difficult conditions for slave wages. This kitchen runs thanks to Africans and Eastern Europeans.

It took me a while to see how all the flavours blend together, because I was so caught up in Chef Gabe being a jerk. Maybe I'm overreacting, but no: rescuing the damsel in distress but then allowing yourself to believe that her having sex with you has nothing to do with the power dynamic you've established is a pretty jerk thing to do. And lying to his girlfriend about it. Jerk.

But it's little things too, like in the way he regards his sister:
Gabe held the phone away from his ear. Two years ago — was it three? — he had been affronted when Jenny walked into the kitchen in Plodder Lane and he saw how old she had become, how middle age had enveloped her like the layers of fat on her arms, her legs, her neck. Jenny, who used to wear torn denim miniskirts and a fuck-off glare. Who use to drop one laconic word in the pub and send everyone scurrying to pick it up, frame it, and hand it around. She used so many words now and all of them passed you by.
I wondered how Ali could be so mean to women, letting Gabe get away with crap like that. Shouldn't she be championing the feminist cause? Gabe's girlfriend was made out to have a strong character in life, but be a mere background character in the novel.
Charlie, standing with her back to the kitchen counter, dug her hands into her jeans pockets. Her sweater, samphire green, showcased her curves. Once he had said to her she should be on a tailfin, a mascot for our brave boys as they went to "liberate" whichever godforsaken country they were sent to next. "You mean I've got World War Two hips," she said. He knew by then that she said these things as a parody of female insecurity and also because she was insecure. He said nothing because, confirm or deny, either way it would be taken as attempt to patronize.
But I realized how astute, how true. This is the way the world is. We parody our insecurity while still insecure. Feminism lurks here. Ali's women characters are not the centre of this story — they are side dishes, dessert, a bit of home cooking — they have an awareness of themselves and their fate that Gabe does not have of himself.

So this novel turns out to be much vaster than the midlife drama of a petty and pathetic character. I really don't care how Gabe's little life turns out, and he really unravels at the end, but I am a little more concerned for the world: How real is human trafficking? How does Great Britain really treat its immigrants? How representative is Gabe's father when he bemoans that Great Britain has lost its Britishness.
London wasn't the brains of the country, as people said; it certainly wasn't the heart. London was all belly, its looping intestinal streets constantly at work, digesting, absorbing, excreting, fueling and refueling, shaping the contours of the land.
Ali is a keen observer of human nature. I think Gabe's nature is very true, but sadly it makes him so unlikeable that it gets in the way of a good story.
"But every refugee knows how to tell his story. For him, you understand, his story is a treasured possession. For true, it is the most important thing he owns."
Possibly Ali is making the point that Gabe bears the privilege of not having to treasure his own story (but then why should I?).

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