Almost English is, as Aunt Roszi would say, a ‘von-dare-ful’ novel. Charlotte Mendelson creates such captivating, deliciously eccentric characters and captures the sheer horror of an English boarding school perfectly – one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Marina Farkas is a homesick teenager at Combe Abbey boarding school in Dorset, battling through the terms while missing her mother Laura, trying to deal with the advances of Guy (a younger Fiver – the horror) and struggling over her decision to pursue Chemistry and, indeed, an eventual place at Cambridge. Mendelson gets right into the mindset of an awkward sixteen-year-old; Marina is “shy; clumsy; short; fatherless; scared of cats, and the dark, and the future,” and she has no idea how to behave at a prestigious boarding school where all the girls are born knowing exactly what to wear.
The pages switch between Marina and Laura, her extremely English mother, who works as a receptionist at a surgery and spends a large part of her days thinking of ways to kill herself without causing too much bother. Laura is downtrodden, abandoned by her husband Peter (Pet-air) and forced to live in Westminster Court with her Hungarian relatives. The Hungarian aunts are a highlight of the novel; they are heart-warming and frustrating, hideously embarrassing yet fiercely lovable. The hilarity of the situation is tenderly drawn; three pensioners, a forty-something mother and her teenage daughter all squashed into a Bayswater flat – and Mendelson evokes the voices of the three aunts perfectly (there’s even a pronunciation guide at the back of the book to help you with your Hungarian accent!)
A stand-out moment for me was Marina’s visit to her semi-boyfriend Guy’s family home, where she spends a weekend feeling horribly awkward, terrified of the correct procedure when going to the bathroom in the night, unsure of what to wear for dinner, and desperately keen to impress his wealthy family (so different from her own gaggle of elderly Hungarian relatives).
Whilst Mendelson has a beautifully light-hearted tone, there are darker moments in this book, and some of the topics it draws on are undoubtedly sobering. Marina’s self-conscious self-hatred makes you feel terribly sorry for her, and her encounter with the lecherous Alexander Viney is difficult to read, such is the contrast between his behaviour and her naivety. Laura’s internal struggles too make for heavy subject matter – at one point she walks along the river and seriously considers slipping into the dark water – but as both characters persevere with their lives, Mendelson gradually leads them towards each other, bringing to light the strong mother-daughter bond that is at the heart of this novel, and that is, ultimately, the force which saves them both.
Almost English was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, and deserves all the praise it has ever got – it’s a charming novel that I wanted to last forever.