Doubleday £17.99 from the Independent Bookshop : 0870 079 8897

In the Kitchen, By Monica Ali,

A chef is troubled by the death of an employee. But how much do we really care about illegal labour?

Chefs have not fared well in recent fiction. In Irvine Welsh's last-but-one novel, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, Alan De Fretais was about as appealing as the proverbial reheated soufflé. Marrow, by Tiffanie Darke, a former close friend of Gordon Ramsay, was about an arrogant, sex-obsessed (and entirely fictional) celebrity chef. So it is interesting to see how the bullying ignoramus of popular legend will appear, when given the light touch of Monica Ali.

Gabriel Lightfoot is executive chef at the once-grand Imperial Hotel in London's Piccadilly. He is a 42 year old with plans: open a classic French restaurant, marry Charlie, his red-headed, jazz-singer girlfriend, and spend more time with his family in Lancashire. But his life begins to fall apart after the accidental death of Yuri, a kitchen porter and illegal immigrant. The subsequent chain of events slowly exposes the fragility of Gabe's plans, his relationships and his whole identity. Plagued by nightmares and desperate for sleep, his search for any meaning in Yuri's death produces one of the best lines in the book, from the Russian commis chef, Nikolai: "The significance of Yuri's death is that it is so insignificant. That is why it is so troubling. That is why you dream."

This gets to the heart of the story Ali is trying to tell: that without families and friends with whom we share a history, relationships can become so ephemeral that it doesn't seem to matter whether a person lives or dies. Gabe presides over a multinational workforce of waiters, chefs and porters, but the hotel doesn't care about the former doctors and child soldiers it employs: every immigrant has a story which is irrelevant in the kitchen and Yuri's death is nothing more than a messy inconvenience.

The setting of the book is undeniably fascinating: the hidden world of Britain's illegal immigrants, who come and go without most people ever noticing they exist. But this novel is a missed opportunity. It is full of ideas that are not sustained by its characters, which makes it dense and frustrating in parts. The pace is unhurried and the story somewhat slight, neither of which would be a problem if you felt connected with the characters. But you don't. Some are inadequately developed, while others are unconvincing clichés. Just as Benny, a former soldier from Liberia, begins to draw you in, you find there are no more opportunities to understand him better.

All the while, Gabe's father is dying of cancer. Having escaped his dreary mill-town in search of Michelin stars, Gabe returns home for the first time in years and is forced to reconsider his version of childhood events. Some of Ali's most convincing dialogue is between Gabe and his sister, Jenny, as she shatters his memories of their mother as a fun-loving, spirited housewife whom his father oppressed. In truth, she had suffered from devastating bouts of depression and mania – something Gabe had never known.

There are moments of absorbing insight into Gabe's character, but not enough to sustain 400 pages. The last 100, in which Gabe's descent into madness speeds up, almost rescue the story. But this welcome change of pace comes too late; by this point, you still don't know Gabe well enough to care. Less believable still is his swift recovery: to have him go from full-blown manic to reflective grown-up in a matter of days somewhat undermines the truth of his experiences.

What made Ali's Brick Lane so engaging was the strength of the characters. None of the characters here get under the skin. This is a bold novel from an intelligent writer who is determined to explore difficult relationships and uncomfortable conditions in 21st-century Britain. Unfortunately, important issues aren't enough.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence