Book review: Almost English, By Charlotte Mendelson

This cross-cultural story about the pains of growing up amuses but does not convince

Arifa Akbar
Monday 12 August 2013 16:31 BST
A wavering tone: Charlotte Mendelson, at her north London home
A wavering tone: Charlotte Mendelson, at her north London home

Charlotte Mendelson's Man Booker longlisted fourth novel is a mother -daughter story with a Hungarian twist. Laura is the mother who was long ago abandoned by her husband of Hungarian heritage, his absent presence now felt only in the houseful of ageing, blinged up female relatives he has left Laura with to remember him by. Marina is the daughter who is going through a teenage crisis at a posh boarding school called Combe Abbey. Both women are desperate, and desperately lonely, and both in their own generational way are at once a part of the warm clique of Hungarian elderwomen and also embarrassed by their thick accents and brassy cultural quirks.

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The novel is also a tragi-comedy but not in the usual sense. Its tone and plot wavers dramatically between a cartoonish, Posy Simmons kind of social comedy – of the ostentatious old Hungarian women, of the boarding school's snobberies and of the extra-marital affair that Laura is having – and those emotionally taut moments when it could all nosedive into tragedy. Laura narrowly averts her suicidal desire to jump off a bridge; a predatory older man almost assaults the virginal Marina; Laura'a errant husband nearly dies of cancer. None of these moments manifest into fullblown tragedy - in fact, there is something dissatisfying in the way every disaster is so conveniently averted – but they sit at odds with the comic tone in the book.

The greater failing though, is the characterisation of mother and daughter, and the lack of distinction between their voices. Marina hates her life, is full of self loathing, is in a half-baked relationship and really MUST get into Cambridge University ("She is shy; clumsy; short; fatherless; scared fo cats... she is going to be a doctor but knows she isn't up to it, and if she doesn't get in to Cambridge her life will be over"). Laura hates her life, is full of self-loathing, is in a half-baked relationship, and really MUST think of how to put it all right. The often histrionic inner voice of the teenager sounds a little too similar to the often histrionic inner voice of the mother, which sounds peculiarly petulant for a woman of her years. ("Laura did several mintues of miscellaneous exercises on the living room floor... What was the point? Look at the skin of the young, their faces. She might as well be dead").

Characterisation of the eccentric brood of Hungarians feels two-dimensional and generic: they seem forever to be saying "Von-darefool" as if accented English were a substitute for depth. They do amuse with their ornate jewellery and bathroom habits but do not develop into anything beyond glib studies and their individual stories are told fleetingly, if at all. Neither are the two protagonists drawn with complexity. Laura reiterates her passivity and self-loathing a few too many times, while Marina also repeats her character traits like a mantra – her homesickness, her social awkwardness, her loneliness.

That there are flaws in the narrative does not necessarily make the novel a wholly unsatisfactory read. The comedy works at times and Mendelson gives her reader reasons to turn the page.

Alongside the unrelenting existential crises of mother and daughter, a plot ticks along involving the return of the prodigal son, and an old feud in the Hungarians's lingerie business that collides with Marina's new friendship at Combe Abbey. The latter is too coincidental to be anything other than a heavy-handed plot device to bring the strands together, yet there is pace and promise there.

Mendelson is particularly good on the intensity of teenage crushes – Marina talks in the screeching language of teen love – "Without him her life will be ashes... First love can never be repeated. She has read Turgenev. She knows." She also has some nice turns of phrase. "Kisses can grow. They spread over your skin like lichen..."

Mendelson is clearly a writer of imagination and humour and there is vivacity in her prose, but also room for greater maturity.

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