Monica Ali's new book exposes some of the rotting timbers propping up postmodern British society in a subtle, refreshing, and thoroughly entertaining way.
The story centres on the breakdown and eventual personal redemption of an entrepreneurial chef (Gabe Lightfoot) as he struggles with multiple pressures: crazy work environment in a London hotel made up of a "staff of UN refugees", a complicated personal life (all of his own making...or is it?), and the death of his father and the Northern community that has surrounded him.
While it's the story of the search for the real 'him', it's ultimately about the search for the real 'us', ie. Britain at the start of a new century as the cosy post-industrial moral consensus comes under increasing pressure (from financial crises, endemic MPs' sleeze, gang masters and immigration, even celebrity chefs serving ready-meals in their restaurants!).
The great strength of the book is that it's both an easy read - the story is fast paced, with memorable characters and a mini cliffhanger at the end of each chapter - but also a stimulating one - there are many sections I benefitted from lingering on or returning to to appreciate some of the subtleties of what was being (not) said.
Gabe's 'executive sous chef', for example, is a late middle aged Jamaican lady with a thick accent and an irritatingly laconic approach to work. On a first reading you could be forgiven for thinking that, while an entertaining character, aspects of her are unnecessary stereotypical. But I felt that it was precisely her unfashionable personality and attitude, in contrast to Gabe's supposed go-getting dynamism, that was the more laudable. She, an unlikely figure, is perhaps the real hero of the book.
You need to give this book some space to breath in your mind. But if you do it'll keep you thinking for a lot longer than many other books.