Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

17th Sep 2013

Charlotte Mendelson once again takes on the dysfunctional family, with added boarding school drama and teenage social awkwardness. Here's our take on her Man Booker longlisted fourth novel.

For her fourth novel, the Man Booker longlisted Almost English, Charlotte Mendelson turns her penetrative eye once again on a dysfunctional family – this time with added elderly Hungarians.

Charlotte Mendelson – herself the granddaughter of ‘Trans Carpathian-Ruthenian former subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’ – has delved into her own childhood to conjure up the characters of Rozsi, Zsuzsi and Ildi, three sisters who share their small flat in Bayswater with Rozsi’s daughter-in-law Laura Farkas, and Laura’s 16-year-old daughter, Marina.

The narrative perspective is shared between Marina, who has recently left her state school to become an unhappy boarder at posh Combe Abbey, and Laura, an emotionally immature, abandoned wife embroiled in an affair with her GP boss.

Her final decisive act, though not 100% convincing, is the anti-establishment 'Fuck You' that you want for her.Marina’s gaucheness and embarrassment about her unusual, freakishly foreign domestic set-up contribute to her having no friends, and no allies among the teachers.

She has her heart set on studying medicine at Cambridge but prefers books, and is desperately in love with a boy called Simon Flowers, who plays the classical guitar and is barely aware that she exists.

She has achieved her longed-for escape from home but is painfully homesick and can’t admit it. Malory Towers this ain’t.

Into this hell-hole strides Guy Viney, in the year below and not especially attractive, but the only person at school who appears not to be taking the piss out of her.

They fall into an awkward sort-of relationship, and she goes to spend the weekend with his rich family, falling in love with their lifestyle, and with his awful mother and famous TV historian father Alexander.

Her belief that these people are to be admired and emulated, despite their obvious hideousness, results in some of the book’s most painful sequences, which we see coming because throughout Marina’s narrative the reader is made far more aware than the character – Mendelson has captured her excruciating social awkwardness and naivety brilliantly.

Hardly a page goes by without Marina doing or saying something that makes you squirm and pray she doesn’t do what she’s clearly about to do. She is an easy character to root for, and her final decisive act, though not 100% convincing, is the anti-establishment ‘Fuck You’ that you want for her.

Laura is no less interesting, though she is frustrating. She’s been stuck with her elderly relatives for 13 years, since the disappearance of her feckless husband Peter. She works a dead-end job as her lover Dr Alistair Sudgeon’s incompetent receptionist, and spends most of her time bottling up her feelings.

She is limp: an unsexy woman who feels sexy only when stealing the pills she is considering using to kill herself. She is unable to stand up to her relatives, tell Marina how much she misses her, or resist the lures of her returning ex. A tragic figure, but because she is an adult it’s a lot harder to feel sympathy for her than for Marina.

Laura and Marina are both uptight and closed-up, in gleeful contrast to the voluble, exuberant Hungarian community they are almost a part of. Rozsi, Zsuzsi and Ildi’s bumptiousness provides most of the novel’s comedy, and it is in places a very funny book, staying just the right side of farce.

The lightness of touch and plot-heavy structure does mean that minor (particularly male) characters tend to lack depth, and with one exception the few dark bits are not designed to pack a huge punch.

At one point Guy Viney’s father mentions to Marina that he had ‘an acquaintance’ from the area her family is from. Marina knows virtually nothing about her family history, because the sisters cry whenever she brings it up.

The reason for this, and Viney Snr’s relationship with the Farkases, emerges in an unlikely plot development that Mendelson must have known was ludicrous.

It works instead as a device to imply that those who remember and respect their roots – however embarrassing – are the goodies, and those who screw theirs over will always turn out to be bastards.

Charlotte Mendelson didn’t make it onto the Booker shortlist. Should we be righteously apoplectic about that? Almost English is a lovely book, and Marina is a wonderful creation.

It’s thoughtful, wise, and certain passages stick around for ages after the last page is read. But Marina’s relationship with her mother, and Laura herself as a main protagonist, are too unconvincing (and at times plain annoying) for the novel to be perfect.