While set in a frenetic and fast-paced kitchen of a London hotel, Ali's latest book is really about the romantic and familial entanglements of the hotel's head chef Gabriel Lightfoot. Indeed Gabriel feels a bit out of place in this environment, most of his working life surrounded by a ramshackle collection of immigrants. Though born in, Blantwistle a small town in Lancashire, Gabriel has never really felt comfortable with his life in central London with his sympathies and memories more stuck in the county where his father, Ted, grandmother ,Nan, and his overweight sister Jenny still lives. Still at fort two, Gabriel needs a break. Fuelled with the best of intentions, he hopes to start his own fine restaurant and garner the respect of two ingratiating and contemptuous potential business partners, Rolly and Fairweather, one of which is a sitting MP - and also provide a comfortable future for his current girlfriend Charlie. But Gabriel's life takes in unexpected turn when one day when Yuri, a Ukrainian porter is found dead deep in the storage areas below the restaurant.
While the officious manager Mr. Maddox announces the restaurant would be closed, there seems to be little explanation as to why Yuri was found naked, his head awash with blood along with some splashes of what is possibly alcohol around the face. He must have been drinking, he bought it all on himself, and it was a sad accident. Certainly Gabriel failed to take charge of the situation and is aghast at the enormity of his managerial lapse. Further complicating matters is the discovery of the Belarusian Lena, an illegal pot washer, on the run from pimps and drug traffickers who Gabriel suddenly ensconces in his flat, her flesh and bone sexual wiles countering his dimming passion for Charlie. Lena lived down the basement with Yuri, but she refuses to tell him what happened with Yuri. A carved beauty, a dying swan, this skinny girl that had become his irritant and his ache is Gabriel`s "his ghostly girl." But Gabriel needs to wipe the slate and brand his indelible mark and he's constantly blinded by the fact that he just has to tell Charlie about Lena. Meanwhile, Jen sends the news that Ted is dying of cancer, causing Gabriel to return to Blantwistle with all of its agony of familiarity. It is here against the awful invisibility of home where Gabriel realizes he's living in a state of suspended animation, and in constant oscillation between unbearable tension and annihilating lethargy.
Awash in topicality, Ali peppers Gabriel's external dramas and inner conflicts with remonstrations on foreigners and progress, a booming UK economy and the country's deep-seated xenophobia with regard to immigrants and foreign workers. All the while Gabriel rages against the giant of his childhood, his father who is now this gaunt sick old man at whom it is implausible to direct all his rage. Ali's powers of description are evocative and colorful, especially that of central London as it hums its morning song, endlessly reverberating, one crescendo piling into the next with the rain, the smells, the billboards, the rumble of cars. Even as Gabriel walks and takes it all in, his mind is constantly engaged elsewhere. Although her main character is undoubtedly endearing, her novel failed to grab me as it has a narrative pace that is sacrificed at the expense of weighty diatribes about the changing face of British society. The reality of a changing world, represented by Gabriel's restaurant life is presented in start counterpoint to the more traditionally minded world of his family, especially his father. But unfortunately, we must slog through the considerable flotsam and jetsam of Gabriel's past to get back to the real story at hand. Mike Leonard July 09.