Just over half way through Monica Ali's third novel, Gabriel Lightfoot, executive chef of the fictional Imperial Hotel on London's Piccadilly, has his first funny turn and the book starts to take off. Up to this point, though we've never once moved out of Gabriel's consciousness, we hardly know him. Not surprising, as he has no idea who he really is.
At 42, Gabe is enslaved by to-do lists that are never done. His rag-tag multinational staff irritate him, his bald patch worries him, and his greasy and unprincipled managers enrage him. Biding his time, he is secretly setting up his own restaurant with a couple of equally unprincipled partners. Meanwhile, his father in the north is dying, and an illegal immigrant hiding in the hotel has been discovered dead in the basement and is now haunting his nightmares. Gabe loves his red-haired jazz singer girlfriend, but he has not told her about the mysterious Lena, an escaped sex slave and seriously damaged waif with whom he's having obsessive, guilty sex in the guise of protection.
Throughout the first part of the book, this uneasy constellation of circumstances nudges him slowly towards breakdown. The story is slight, the pace leisurely. This in itself is fine, but the characters are not developed enough to sustain it. It's very much a novel of ideas. Large swathes consist of people discussing such things as Britishness, but it's hard to escape the impression that certain characters are little more than mouthpieces. This is compounded by Ali's rampant overuse of stereotype: Oona the Jamaican with her gold tooth and constant laugh, the French pastry cook who talks like Inspector Clouseau.
Gabe's family is not exempt. Nana break into a few lines of "She's a lassie from Lancashire" lest we forget her credentials, and teenage niece Bailey writes emo poetry, "like about sad stuff, like pain, and how no-one understands us and that". This oversimplification is a shame because Ali is clearly concerned to show that for every faceless immigrant worker sustaining the British hospitality trade, there is a real individual. "Every refugee knows how to tell his story," says one, and many of them are truly heartbreaking.
It comes as a pleasant surprise when Gabe finally goes off the rails and Ali's prose begins to soar. Her descriptions of Gabe's dissociated states are excellent, and as he drifts away from his moorings, a tsunami of impressions overwhelms him and his identity begins to disintegrate. "He was in the bloodstream of the city that was in his blood... only a molecule, a protein speck in the city." He runs about the kitchen asking people to describe him in three words. "Tall. White. Male," someone says.
Gabe lacks substance and he knows it. Identity is a crucial theme. "What I can't get my head around," he says when his grandmother gets dementia, "is where is Nana? I mean, physically she's in her chair. But where's the person, the Nana that we knew?"
This identity crisis extends to the nation. "It's going to the dogs," says Gabe's dad, maintaining that the economy is a house of cards. "Bless him, no," a two-faced New Labour politician tells Gabe. "The economy is very, very strong, as the chancellor keeps telling us." Britain is as run-down as the once grand Imperial Hotel, and the statues of central London portray "men who had turned the course of history, and for whom it would never turn again." The old order is gone and the new does not know itself.
This is an ambitious book from a writer not content to revisit familiar territory. She takes risks that don't always succeed. In the Kitchen is too long (as Brick Lane was), the writing is inconsistent, with a surfeit of cliché, but it's a serious and intelligent, if ultimately unsuccessful attempt at tackling the state of the nation. Her best work is yet to come.
Carol Birch's latest novel is 'Scapegallows' (Virago)Reuse content