Why is it that families can be so fascinating to us in fiction? Is it because we all think our families are absolutely mental? Is it because we can’t choose them yet (I find sometimes rather annoyingly) we have this strange bond with them? Is it because in this modern forward thinking age the idea of a ‘normal family’ (with divorces, step parents, deaths, adoption, disowning) of two point four children simply doesn’t exist and the evolvement of it is strangely fascinating? I could go on, but I won’t – just in case my family are reading this. Family saga’s, though I don’t really like the word saga, especially the dysfunctional kind can make for great reading, such is the case with Charlotte Mendelson’s latest novel ‘Almost English’.
Marina is sixteen. She has decided to leave the comforts of her comprehensive and her family home in favour of boarding school, a place she believes will be brimming with adventure, midnight feasts, independence, boys and dare she admit it sex. What more could she need. It also means escaping her mother, Laura, and her crazy Hungarian great aunts and Grandmother, Rozsi. However boarding school is not what she expected it to be, she isn’t popular, she isn’t cool and she isn’t on the young men’s radars at all. In fact she is a bit of a loner and a seen as a bit of a geek. She is miserable.
Admittedly I am not known as a fan of the ‘coming of age story’ yet ‘Almost English’ is in many ways such a tale. Though it is just as a coming of age tale of a young girl, it is also a coming of age story for a mother in her mid forties, as Laura is also miserable too sleeping on her in laws couch, her husband having left one day, in a dead end job and having a very unfulfilling and unexciting affair. Laura is also miserable. It was the duality of this in ‘Almost English’ that I found really interesting and indeed one of the things that I liked the most about it, though truth be told there is lots and lots to like here.
As the book goes on we see how as a teenager Marina is struggling to work out just who she is and what she is made of. Also, after meeting the Viney family, Marina is looking at what she might be aspiring to be. She sees adulthood as being the most thrilling time ever, yet we see through Laura (and of course adding our own life experience into the mix) that adult life is just as hard, in fact sometimes all the harder. There is also, as an adult reader, a strange sense of nostalgia and hindsight which makes you feel all the more empathy with Marina as she bumbles, rather awkwardly, through her sixteenth year and the romanticism in her life wanes slightly.
She is shy; clumsy; short; fatherless; scared of cats, and the dark, and the future. She is going to be a doctor but knows she isn’t up to it, and if she doesn’t get into Cambridge her life will be over. And, unbeknownst to anyone at Combe, she lives with old people in a little bit of darkest Hungary, like a maiden in a fairy story. Or a troll.
In case I am making the book sound like it is depressing, it honestly isn’t. One of the things I really liked about the book was Charlotte Mendelson’s sense of humour throughout. Marina’s clumsiness and general teenage angst will make us laugh in hindsight, we have all been there. Importantly Mendelson knows just when to put a laugh in, when the book gets a little dark we get a titter, never a guffaw, to lighten the tension. This also works the other way will ‘the crazy Hungarian oldsters’, as Charlotte calls them, often provide a laugh yet as we read on their background story is a rather tragic one. Throughout the balance is just right, you will laugh out loud but it doesn’t descend in farce, the bleakness and black humour complement each other, laughter sometimes making a dark turn all the darker.
To the casual Englishman, were one present, she might appear as other grandmothers: reading glasses on a chain, worn wedding ring. Do not be deceived. Rozsi is unusually clever and fearless by her compatriots’ standards. Her younger son Peter, Laura’s former husband, used to call her Attila, with reason. Laura, whose references are more prosaic, thinks of her as Boudicca dressed as Miss Marple. This is not a woman one ignores. She has a white bun and black eye-brows, her cheeks are soft and age-spotted, but consider the cheekbones underneath; you think she forgives easily? Think again.
‘Almost English’ is also a book brimming with issues (depression, cancer, desertion, class, race) without ever becoming an ‘issue based book’, again this is a hard thing to pull off but Mendelson deftly combines these elements as she does the humour, nothing feels forced and even when another dramatic twist ensues it’s not melodramatic. I am wondering if Charlotte Mendelson should take up tightrope walking as her sense of balance is spot on.
Most importantly for me though was the writing. Not just the story telling (we all love a good story) and the characters, or indeed the late 1980’s atmosphere, but the prose. In almost every paragraph there was a turn of phrase, a characteristic, moment or just a sentence that loved, be it snigger inducing or thought provoking. It is one of those books.
What does madness feel like? Can you develop it quite discreetly on the bus home from Oxford Street, carrying mothballs? Can it be normal to cry in a department store toilet, at advertising hoardings or thoughts of distant famine? Somebody must know.
The best way I can describe ‘Almost English’ is that it is a human book. It looks at people and how crazy, selfish, funny, heartbreaking we can all be. It is also a novel that will take you back to those awkward school days and emotions and hopefully make you smile with a certain nostalgic affection whilst also inwardly squirming. It is also a novel where you will leave and breathe alongside the characters and their highs and lows. I thoroughly recommend giving this a whirl. I shall soon be off to head to Mendelson’s earliest works for more.
You can hear me talking about ‘Almost English’ in more detail with Charlotte on the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here. It might be one of my favourite author interviews yet.