Monica Ali’s Brick Lane follow-up never really reaches boiling point
ALTHOUGH she published a book called Alentejo Clue in 2006, this is being seen as the follow-up to Ali’s much-trumpeted Brick Lane. Once again it tackles the prickly topic of immigrants in London, but this time the action centres round the unlikeable chef Gabriel Lightfoot who works at the Imperial Hotel (note the heavy whiff of symbolism) in Piccadilly. It’s a roiling workhouse of underpaid immigrants working too hard for too little with all the attendant tensions.
The action begins with the death of a Ukranian kitchen porter called Uri – except rather than a mystery, it is treated as a symbol of how so many lives just fall through the cracks. Lightfoot is haunted by Uri’s death and starts to delve into the world of legal and illegal migrants, soon drumming up all kinds of unpleasantness about sex workers and trafficking. He meets Lena, a battered, waiflike Belarussian in her twenties and – distastefully – begins an affair with her. This is the icing on the cake of his spiralling life: his dying father, the truth about his dead mother, the sinister restaurant manager.
Ali has done her research on the workings of hotel kitchens and there is plenty of believable grit here. But ultimately the book is laden with dead weight – characters it is hard to believe in (including Gabe), cliches galore and, finally, a feeling of having read something big but empty. Ali has tried to take on a substantial topic, but on this occasion it has proved too much for her.