‘Von-derful, darlink‘ – Charlotte Mendelson’s Novel Almost English

Charlotte Mendelson, Almost English. London: Mantle/Picador, 2013.
(Paperback: London: Picador, 2014.)

In Charlotte Mendelson’s fourth novel, Almost English, protagonist Marina Farkas leaves her Central-European relations with whom she shares a tiny flat in London behind to embark on her sixth-form year at Combe, a minor boarding school which has recently opened its doors to admit girls. Marina misses her friends from Ealing school, does not know how to fit in, grapples with teenage problems such as sex, and whether to study medicine or history. Her rather inept mother Laura does not notice how unhappy and homesick Marina is, because she has similar problems in her rather directionless life, including her sex life. Suddenly, Marina’s father returns to the scene, distracting Laura completely from everything else. Key to the plot are the three elderly Hungarian-Ukranian-Russian sisters Roszi, Ildi, and Zsuszi, Marina’s grandmother and great-aunts respectively, their Central-European accents, tastes, emotions, and non-English expat circles. Marina is deeply entangled, although half English through her mother, attached and at the same time tries to free herself from the family’s clutch. She encounters Guy Viney, whom she does not love, but at least explores the sexual possibilities that he offers. Guy turns out to have a famous father, and a countryhouse to go with it. Marina is entranced by Guy’s parents and his home. It turns out that Guy’s father Alexander is not as English as he appears to be but is the son of another Central-European who was responsible for the down-fall of the Farkas’ family.

Things are not quite as ‘vonderful’ as they seem at first, and there is more than simple teenage angst and sexual insecurity which makes life for Marina difficult. Not only is her mother largely absent-minded, contemplating suicide, falling in love again with her husband who left her without a trace a decade before. Alexander Viney also abuses her teenage confusion and nearly seduces her, she has an intellectual crisis as well as a sexual one and does not know how to ‘be’ since she feels different from her peers, not least because she is clever.

What makes this novel outstanding are two things: the assured way in which Charlotte Mendelson interweaves Laura’s and Marina’s perspective. And the care and sympathy she uses to make the Hungarian-Ukranian Farkas family equally maddening and lovable. Although the novel is based on a Dickensian sense of verisimilitude – unlikely encounters between ‘Hungarians’ and allegedly ‘English’ – Mendelson is much better than writers such as Mark Haddon or David Mitchell on teenage predicaments. Not only because her insights are deeper, her sense of comedy and farce are more pronounced, but also because a deeper train of thought runs through the novel. The three sisters from a place whose national borders have changed often in the course of history, and who cry as soon as their ancestral home is mentioned, gives this comedy of manners and coming-of-age story historical depth. The language is hilarious and serious in equal measures, mirroring the comic and the tragic aspects of the novel. ‘Englishness’ in all its different shapes and forms is refracted through the lens of ‘Hungarian’/Central-European eyes. To quote the review in the Observer “Beautifully written, warm, funny and knowing, it manages to seize an entire slice of Europe for itself, a vast empire full of new and interesting questions about how close, and how far apart, all these postwar worlds have made us.” (inside cover, PB edition of Almost English).

Charlotte Mendelson has published four novels to date; her first non-fiction book (on gardening) is due out in September 2016, Rhapsody in Green, to be published by Kyle. She works as a critic and journalist, as well as a writer, has taught for the Arvon Foundation, and has been a literary editor herself. She won the Somerset Maugham Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and was shortlisted for the then Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction. Almost English was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction in 2014. When We Were Bad was chosen as book of the year for The Observer, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The New Statesman and The Spectator.