The turbulent, multicultural London backdrop is the same, but the dutiful Muslim wife in transition, who drove the action of Ali’s brilliant debut (Brick Lane, 2003, etc.), has been replaced by a very different kind of protagonist: a talented chef in midlife crisis.
The future looks rosy for 42-year-old Gabriel Lightfoot. He has turned around a failing restaurant in an old London hotel and secured financial backing to open his own establishment, a lifelong dream. Marriage is in the cards with gorgeous girlfriend Charlie, a jazz singer. Yet the novel’s first sentence signals the crack-up to come. A Ukrainian kitchen porter has been found dead in the restaurant basement. Another porter, young, rail-thin Lena from Belorusse, appears to be homeless. Gabe invites her to his place, a favor for which she matter-of-factly offers sex in return. Lena is cold and hard—unsurprising, since she was trafficked into prostitution and is on the run from her brutal pimp. Gabe is startled to realize that he does indeed want to have sex with Lena, in fact is falling for her. Charlie finds out and dumps him. A visit to his dying father in the former mill town where he was raised brings back childhood memories. Meanwhile there’s a kitchen to be run. Ali does a superb job of evoking this histrionic, occasional violent workplace manned by “a United Nations task force.” She hints too at the dark world of bonded labor that lies beyond the kitchen, as a major scandal involving the hotel maids threatens to erupt and Gabe plays detective. It’s too much for him; he has two panic attacks before losing it completely and roaming the streets like a madman. Ali takes risks here, and not all of them pay off. Gabe’s obsession with Lena and subsequent breakdown are not wholly convincing, and Charlie gets shortchanged as a character. Moment to moment, however, the novel is engrossing.
Flawed but still impressive, the work of a fearless writer determined to challenge herself.