In her latest novel, author Monica Ali thoughtfully examines a chef's identity crisis and how it mirrors dramatic changes in British society and culture.
NEW YORK -Monica Ali's emergence in 2003 as one of Britain's best and brightest writers occurred suddenly and without warning, like a time-lapse video of a peony bursting into full bloom. When "Brick Lane," her fiction debut, came out that year, it had been preceded by not so much as a single published short story.
Critics went wild.
"It may be Ali's first novel," crowed the Sunday Times of London, "but it is written with a wisdom and skill that few authors achieve in a lifetime."
In the New Republic, James Wood called "Brick Lane" "a great achievement of the subtlest storytelling," and even invoked the name of Charles Dickens.
Ali's lyrical, sweeping story of Nazneen, the Bangladeshi girl sent to London for an arranged marriage to the much-older Chanu, became a bestseller, was translated into more than 20 languages and made into a movie. It was nominated for the Booker Prize in Great Britain, and for a National Book Critics Circle Award in the United States.
One imagines the unknown writer's life being transformed by overnight celebrity and wealth. But for Ali, living in London with her husband and two young children, the biggest change financed by the success of "Brick Lane" was some part-time child care.
"I got three mornings a week -- yeah, it was a huge luxury," Ali said with a laugh.
Ali spoke recently at the offices of Scribner, her U.S. publisher. She's living temporarily in New York while teaching in the master's writing program at Columbia University. Ali is a fit and young-looking 42, and wore a big pair of sunglasses atop her head and black suede boots with fringed sides.
There were plenty of interviews after "Brick Lane," she said. "Were I interested in a sort of media life, that would have been fairly easy to slip into -- to do columns, and spout off about this and that, but I have no interest in that. I just find it stressful and boring, and of no relevance to my work, which is to sit on my own and write fiction."
That dedication led to a second book, "Alentejo Blue," a series of short stories connected by the setting of a village in Portugal. Her third book, "In the Kitchen," is a novel of contemporary England as seen through the eyes of 42-year-old Gabriel Lightfoot, executive chef at a big London hotel restaurant. Published last year in hardcover, it comes out in paperback this month. (Ali will talk about that novel and her writing as part of Talking Volumes on May 19 at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.)
Small-town boy appears to have it all as a chef in London
Gabriel grew up in northwestern England in a fictional textile-mill town called Blantwistle. His career as a chef has taken him far and wide, but when "Kitchen" opens, Gabriel is working long hours at a French restaurant in London's venerable Imperial Hotel, where he oversees immigrant workers from around the world. He and his girlfriend, Charlie, a nightclub singer, have vague thoughts of marriage. His mom has died and his father, a former mill worker, has cancer. Backers, including a member of Parliament and a business tycoon, are poised to help Gabriel open his own restaurant.
Cue the monkey wrench. A night porter turns up dead in the restaurant's cellar, some money has been hidden down there, and a mysterious Eastern European girl who may know more than she's telling enters Gabriel's increasingly chaotic life.
"With Gabe, I wanted to write about a man who's in a modern, metropolitan, multicultural environment, and who feels that he is very adept and plugged in and that he knows how the game is played," Ali said. "But when the pressure is really on him, when he's supposed to look inside himself, he sees a bit of a chasm there. I guess that's his identity crisis."
Born in Bangladesh, Ali grew up in England, went to Oxford
While it may seem that Ali, with a white British mother and a Bangladeshi father, has more in common with Nazneen, her "Brick Lane" protagonist, than with Gabriel, she doesn't agree.
"Nazneen's life is very dissimilar to mine, much more dissimilar than Gabe's," Ali said. "She was born and raised in a little Bangladeshi village, and spoke very little English. I grew up in England."
Ali's mother met her father when he was a student in England, but she moved to Dhaka, India, to marry him. When Monica was 3, the family moved back to England. They lived in Bolton, once a busy textile town that is a model for Blantwistle, where Gabriel's family still lives.
In her novel, Ali uses the town and its mills ("most have been abandoned or turned into malls or condos or heritage sites") to talk about dramatic shifts in provincial England: the changing economy, globalization, anti-immigrant sentiment and the role of labor.
"I spent a couple of weeks in a mill, talking to older white workers about the changes they've seen in their town over the years," Ali said. She found that older townspeople "lamented the days when there used to be a church on every corner, instead of a mosque."
Ali's research into food and restaurants was even more extensive. She spent a year interviewing hotel managers, chefs and kitchen workers in five London hotels to gather background for her novel. Brits have become as food-crazed as Americans, she said, following the exploits of celebrity chefs on reality TV shows, in glossy magazines and in those "who's-shagging-who" tabloids.
At the end of the process, Ali had reams of research, but it was a 2-inch news clipping that gave her the opening of her novel. "I came across this story from two years before, about a Ukrainian kitchen porter whose body had been found in the kitchen of the Cafe Royal in Piccadilly in central London on Christmas Day," she said. "He had been living down there secretly to save money for his daughter's education. A tragic story and one that spoke about the huge divide between lives, even lives that can be lived in the same building. That was my way into the book."
While "Kitchen" is not a whodunit, the death of a low-level restaurant worker is "quite pivotal," Ali said, because "it opens Gabriel up to thinking about some issues. He tries to brush it off as a bureaucratic hassle, but it becomes, for him, a real nightmare."
Novels as places to discover 'emotional truths'
Despite her dedication to research, and her fondness for writing about current events, from religion and politics to immigration, Ali said that imaginative fiction has always played a crucial role for her. A voracious reader who left Bolton to attend Oxford, she admires the novels of Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy and George Eliot "because they have an interest in the world beyond the front door."
Of the current craze for memoirs, reality TV and "so-called authenticity," Ali said, "I think it's a misunderstanding of how fiction works. It's a kind of detrimental lowering of the culture, to believe that something is better if it's true, if it's factual. For me, the thing that might be truly illuminating is often made up."
She cited a nonfiction book and a novel about Hurricane Katrina, both by New Orleans writer Tom Piazza. "The nonfiction was essential for uncovering the lies," she said, "but the fiction was essential in telling the truths about a situation, the emotional truths."
As novels take harpoons from every direction (the Internet, the memoir, shrinking attention spans), one could hardly find a more articulate defender of the form than Ali. "What fiction can offer is a different way to look at a situation, a different way to inhabit the world," she said. "It gives you a different understanding. It doesn't light it up with the bright light of the TV camera; it's more like a candlelight."
Claude Peck • 612-673-7977