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Review: Almost English, By Charlotte Mendelson

An insightful outsider's view of English public school? Well, almost

The English boarding school novel has a distinguished history, not least in being lauded by children's fiction and excoriated by adults'. Marina, the heroine of Charlotte Mendelson's Man Booker-longlisted Almost English, is a descendant of Austro-Hungarian refugees living with four other relations in a small flat. When the novel opens she has left her London girls' day school to join Combe Abbey in Dorset, which takes girls in the sixth form.

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Clever, virginal and an only child, she is set up as the link between the world of elderly middle-European émigrés, of a kind once parodied by George Mikes in How to Be an Alien, and that of the dullest English bonehead. Her relations want her to become a doctor; she, having swallowed children's literature about boarding schools, wants to adhere to convention. Both wishes are, inevitably, proved mistaken.

The early chapters contain deliciously funny descriptions of Marina's family, and friends. Their lost family business in ladies' underwear, their excessive physical modesty and embarrassing, accented outspokenness and their tendency to burst into tears when reminded of the past could have put this novel on a par with Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and often reads like a younger, ruder Anita Brookner.

Yet its central preoccupation is with a view of class (and Englishness) so old-fashioned as to be puzzling, even given its setting in the early 1980s. There is every reason to satirise the kind of major public school world from which the present Government is drawn – but we are told that Combe Abbey is so minor that it scrapes the barrel for famous alumni. The brave and friendless Marina is sufficiently confused to allow a boy in the year below to embark on some sexual exploitation. His famous father, Alexander, who encourages her to abandon medicine for history, is more suave but no less predatory. Much of this seems like wish-fulfilment: the brutal truth is that no girl as clever and articulate as Marina, or as plump, hairy and devoid of style, is going to have popular boys at a public school interested in her, except as a target for persecution. There is no sense of the hidden cruelty of boarding school life.

Marina's story is, for no very necessary reason, intertwined with that of her English mother Laura, a much less interesting character on the verge of madness. Mother and daughter miss each other desperately and silently; the loss of a beloved child to boarding school is a good topic, and I would have liked to know, for instance, precisely what sacrifices were made in order to afford Marina's school fees, and more about the inner lives of the immigrants who ought to be at the heart of the novel but aren't.

What is especially regrettable is that Mendelson misses the most pernicious aspect of public school culture: how it makes all but the most self-confident pupils ashamed of their families. Few can doubt the author's talent as an assured and entertaining writer, but to advance it there needs to be tighter plotting and a deeper generosity and thoughtfulness than is the case here.

Amanda Craig's novels include 'A Private Place' and 'Hearts and Minds'