Reviewed by Denise Kong
Almost English begins with a post-Christmas party in a small London flat belonging to three elderly sisters. From afar, the arriving guests seem to be “perfectly normal Londoners, looking forward to a quiet night in with a cup of tea and a chop and the Radio Times.” It is only when we are allowed closer that we start to pick out their gestures (“a little more extravagant than those found in Surrey”), their looks (“more dramatic”), their “perfume smells” and to hear their language (“entirely impenetrable” or else “a distorted English, full of dactyls which dust familiar words… with snow and fir and darkness”).
“Oh. Hungarian,” our invisible narrator pronounces. “Now it all makes sense.”
The three sisters, Ildi, Rozsi and Zsuzsi, are long ago immigrants from Hungary and Almost English is the story of Rozsi’s daughter-in-law, Laura, and Laura’s sixteen year old daughter, Marina. They all live together because when Marina was a small child, her father Peter disappeared from her parents’ marriage, leaving Laura and Marina with nowhere else to live. The situation is claustrophobic, with Laura reduced to sleeping on a sofa bed in the living room and Marina subject to random great-aunts popping back the curtain for cheerful conversational interludes with their showering great-niece.
Marina attempts to escape by asking to go to boarding school; she is back for the holidays this chill December for a few weeks only, trying to save her pride by hiding her realisation that the whole idea of boarding school was a huge mistake. In a long standing bid for independence, she is used to hiding herself from her family and as a result, Marina and Laura’s relationship is based on a series of misunderstandings over each other’s motives, a dance around things not said.
What I love about Charlotte Mendelson’s writing is the way she can create many different worlds, both internal and external.
Marina’s new world is Combe Abbey School. Behind the doors of the beautiful buildings, life is bound by a new set of unwritten rules, which Marina, as a new girl (indeed, as a girl at all, in an environment to which the female of the species has only recently been introduced), and as a girl from a different social class, struggles to understand.
However, life for Marina does improve when she falls in with Guy, a boy also at Combe Abbey. He invites her home for the weekend to an astonishing English country pile, disintegrating at the corners in the “too grand to care” fashion. Against this setting, Marina is socially snubbed by Guy’s sister, and falls foul of weird unsaid rules once more (such as how to dress for dinner) but finds an unexpected welcome from Guy’s parents.
Marina’s internal world has its own landscape – rocky and insecure. Charlotte Mendelson captures the voice of adolescence exceptionally well, highlighting the absurdity of things that, from the outside, do not really matter but which, from the inside, are of desperately painful importance.
By contrast, Laura’s world of in-laws, married bosses and other such secrets, is less dramatic than Marina’s. Her role is partly to provide a filtered view of the elderly Hungarians, “observing their habits like a less successful Jane Goodall” while to them she is “a puzzling pet”. But her approach represent more than just an opportunity for contrast and observation; she represents a particular brand of Englishness: a stoic acceptance, leavened with an ironic, self-deprecating humour, which I found very funny.
Apart from providing lots of amusement, the book also has something meaningful to say about “Almost English”ness, which is a state in itself. I’m “almost English” and really identified with Marina’s embarrassment and awkward attempts to cover up her otherness. But the book’s arguments lie in more than the actions of the characters; there’s plenty more piquant description where the “snow and fir and darkness” came from, and the richness of the observation made me think about the way that every single situation, when you are “almost English”, is fundamentally different from the life that you know. Just as my situation is a million miles from Marina’s, or from any other balance of Almost Englishness that exists.
It’s nice to see an exploration of what it is to sit in the middle of cultures, and what happens when families attempt to reconcile the view from the outside-in with that from the inside-out. I thought this book was beautifully and sensitively constructed and would be especially enjoyed by people with experiences of growing up in different cultures, but also by anyone who has ever felt, for whatever reason, that they didn’t belong.
Charlotte Mendelson, Almost English(Picador, London, 2014). 978-1447220008, 400pp, paperback.
Denise tries to make sense of life at ListenWatchReadShare. She has many eccentricities that can be put down to being Almost English.