Friday, May 30, 2014

Chop Chop by Simon Wroe - Book Review

Chop, Chop by Simon Wroe (Penguin Press, 2014, 288 pages, $26.95/$12.99) is a coming of age and reconciliation novel set in a marginal restaurant called The Swan in Camden Town, a trendy portion of the borough of Camden in London. Monocle, the narrator, fresh out of a mid-grade university with a degree in literature, finds himself estranged from his estranged parents, at loose ends, and looking for a job. He lands precariously at The Swan as commis (the lowest rung on the fine kitchen ladder), a bar with a full kitchen and a staff of misfits, in almost every sense of the word. The book is, at times, very funny, in an often dark sort of way, and sad, as we follow the lonely outcast Monocle seeking to find a real self. Overlaying the life and times of a restaurant chef lies the mysterious, soul-destroying death of Sam, Monocle's golden-boy older brother and the decline of his parents' marriage, as his father, once a professional golfer descends into lassitude and gambling, eventually deserting his once wealthy wife. This first novel contains much promise within a carefully structured and compelling story of love, loss, and redemption.

The Swan is inhabited by a group of damaged men and women brought together in a kitchen that may be the last resort. The chef, Bob, is a sadistic bully who punishes with fire and ice while kowtowing to the Fat Man, the evil bully whose danger and mystery bring raw danger to the entire operation. Ramilov, Racist Dave, Dibdin, and the beautiful and mysterious Heather round out the cooking staff while two, perhaps, south Asians populate the plonge, the washing area. The Fat Man appears periodically to consume huge amounts of the menu without either joy or appreciation. The rumor that he may be a restaurant critic keeps the staff serving him their best. Meanwhile, Monocle watches, observes, and learns the ways of the kitchen, many of which sent me to the thesaurus or Wikipedia to sort out their functions. At home, Monocle's parents continue to decline, sunk in Sam's loss and their own inability to deal with the world, until Monocle's father leaves home and moves into his tiny room with him.

Structurally, the novel is very interesting. Individual stories of the characters are slowly and carefully revealed into an organic whole, while seeming to remain manic, almost inadvertent. Things happen rather than being caused. Menace, even disaster, looms over the enterprise, while both Ramilov and Racist Dave comment from some external place in Monocle's writing of his novel, for, above all, Monocle is the literature major working desperately to emerge as a major novelist through experiencing the world. As with so many novels, ChopChop is the story of a literary journey towards fulfillment. Wroe's control of his character is complete enough that the reader allows the story to happen without too much questioning of its manic craziness.

Simon Wroe

Simon Wroe is a freelance journalist and former chef. He writes about food for Prospect magazine and art and culture for The Economist, and has contributed articles and features to a wide range of publications, including Private Eye, The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, and The Evening Standard. He is thirty years old and lives in London, and this is his first novel.

Chop, Chop by Simon Wroe (Penguin Press, 2014, 288 pages, $26.95/$12.99) is an engaging, funny, and thought provoking through the nooks and crannies of the kitchen, the mind, and the spirit. Watching Monocle learn to come to terms with the life issues confronting him is compelling and warming. With the role played by celebrity chefs who specialize at intimidating growing chefs, it also an eminently believable tale. I received the book as an electronic galley from the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle.