Almost English is Charlotte Mendelson’s fourth novel. Just past forty, she has already accumulated a significant array of prizes, and is a regular contributor to The Guardian, the TLS and other equally respected journals. This is her most autobiographical novel to date. Having studied history, Mendelson became increasingly perplexed by the great gaps in her knowledge of her own somewhat mysterious ancestral lands and she was alive to certain strange, hovering silences about that past when she attempted to explore it with her family. This book is her way of filling these gaps
She describes her maternal grandparents as “TransCarpathian-Ruthenian former subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who were born in what is now the Ukraine, learned their sums in Russian, spoke Hungarian together yet considered themselves Czech[.]” There are a lot of stones to slip in between in that description, and perhaps that is the essence of this novel. We soon meet the elderly matriarchs, Rozsi and Zsuzsi, who despite their professed affection for their adopted land, continue to inhabit their own created miniature central European country in “Vest-minstaircourt”. Meanwhile, Rozsi’s daughter-in-law, Laura, long abandoned by the feckless “Pay-tare”, is between stones too, living in the flat being English and having, if not always enjoying, some secret comfort in the form of her employer who, of course, has an inconveniently Hungarian wife.
Another generation down, sixteen-year old Marina is between adolescence and adulthood, between the constraints of home and the temptations of her new boarding school … between school, and her inspiring future. Altogether, there are so many places to slip, so many places to be, and none of the characters are truly happy to stay put. But what are their alternatives?
There is much herb chopping in the background, much sucking of excellent chocolate, and a great deal of smoking of Sobranies, as the tale is voiced alternately by Laura and Marina. The colour and Estee Lauder whiff of old Hungary uneasily rooting a new land is captured with great skill and humour. Food especially spices the tale in a very pleasing and evocative way.
Yet, there is something thin in the characterisation of the older ladies. There are some wonderful (“von-darefool”) vignettes – such as, for example, when they sweep by, resplendent in silver fox at the cringing Marina’s school Founder’s Day. Von-dareful, indeed, but perhaps that’s the problem, as they merge into highly entertaining and indistinguishable high camp variants of the Zsa Zsa Gabor type. Their cultural isolation in mainstream England can quickly feel funny, but too much like a stereotyped parody.
Mendelson is on a firmer rock with Marina and draws her coming of age angst well. Her secrecy and her attempts to integrate and impress, with often predictable consequences, can be very funny indeed. Laura somehow seemed less likely as a character in some of her twists and dilemmas, and the plot did not always convince me. The ending seemed a rather pat knotting up the narrative threads, a way of appeasing the reader rather than delivering on the very strong aspects of the book, which perhaps deserved a less conventional finale.
The atmosphere, the thin-skinned, aspirational teenager and the quirky humour make Almost English a romp of a read, deceptively redolent of up-market chick-lit, but I would have liked Mendelson to have held her nerve right to the end. She is certainly worth watching … and a complementing cookery book would be von-darefool, Dar-link.
Almost English was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013.