I found an interesting novel on my bookshelf the other day, a best-seller from a few years ago that I never got around to reading.
The premise of the story is interesting; Abbas Haji, a restauranteur from Mumbai, is forced out of India by anti-Islamic riots. He moves his family to France and opens a restaurant in a small town in Jura. An Indian restaurant, complete with loud Indian music, curry smells, a garish sign, and family screaming matches in the street. About as perfect an antithesis as you could create to the proper French restaurant (two-star Michelin, no less) across the street. Madame Mallory, the owner of this jewel, is a match for the personality of the fiery Indian chef, and mayhem ensues.
Caught in the crossfire is Haji’s 18-year-old son. Besides having basically lived in a restaurant all his life, Hassan has the chef’s equivalent of perfect pitch; he can recognize and remember every flavour he tastes. Against her will, the formidable Madame Mallory allows her professionalism to overcome her prejudice. She decides to mentor this paragon, with the object of helping him to reach the pinnacle of chefdom she has never managed herself: a third Michelin star.
The rest of the novel moves with Hassan from the aromatic Indian chaos of Maison Mumbai, 100 feet across the street to the formality and style of the Michelin-starred La Saule Pleurer. The plot then follows his path from the French Alps to Paris and the subsequent ups and downs of his career as he works his way higher and higher in the French food chain.
Richard Morais is a wonderful descriptive writer, and he uses his talent lavishly, regaling us with orgies of food description and, in the first part of the novel, moving portraits of the exotic life of India. The characters, major and minor, all come to life, and the interpersonal conflicts, large and small, are beautifully crafted.
I can only find only one major flaw in this novel. At the point in the story where Hassan is starting his career, when the suspense of “will he make it?” is just beginning, the author makes this strange statement:
“My rise in Paris over the next twenty years, it was not as difficult as one would suspect. It was as if some unseen spirit were clearing obstacles and helping me take the path that I believe was always destined for me.”
This sort of Insha’Allah approach to life is quite natural for a Muslim, but it doesn’t make for great novel-writing. In fact, it destroys the anticipation of the story completely. Instead of the building suspense that should exist at this point in the story as he strives towards his goal, we have a simple list of the events that lead up to the success we already know is coming. The result is a drop in tension for the whole middle section, which is a shame, because otherwise this is a great read.
I also note a coolness in the portrayal of Hassan’s emotional life. Unlike the wonderful description of his interaction with his mother, the relating of his few love affairs seem pallid in the telling and lacking in sexual tension. The reader is always aware that the kitchen is the main character’s only real love, but we would like to discover some of the more human aspects of his personality.
Recommended, especially for anyone interested in eating or cooking. The food descriptions are stellar. 4 stars out of 5.