Almost English, by Charlotte Mendelson, Mantle, RRP£16.99, 400 pages
Charlotte Mendelson’s Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel takes that most English of literary genres – the boarding school comedy – and spices it with exotic ingredients drawn from Hungarian culture.
At its centre are 16-year-old Marina and her mother, Laura. Long since abandoned by Marina’s father, a pallid aesthete of Hungarian descent, they live with his elderly relatives in a tiny flat in “barely respectable” Bayswater. Marina’s grandmother, Rozsi, and her great-aunts Zsuzsi and Ildi are warm, affectionate hosts – they embrace Laura “like a daughter, albeit a disappointing one” – but their language and traditions remain impenetrable. The lack of privacy is also a problem.
Desperate for some freedom, Marina announces that she wants to attend a posh boarding school. Her fees duly paid out of her grandmother’s savings – Rozsi was once “a major figure in the world of ladies’ underclothing” – she heads off to Combe Abbey in leafy Dorset. Laura remains with her in-laws, and tries to keep them from finding out about her affair with the local GP.
Almost English is Mendelson’s fourth novel – her previous book, When We Were Bad (2007), was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction – and it demonstrates a mastery of narrative craft: she begins in a detached, Tolstoyan register (“come a little closer … so where is little Marina, granddaughter of the house?”) before adopting a free indirect style, alternating between her two protagonists.
The relationship between Marina and Laura forms the heart of the novel. When Marina leaves for Combe they begin to grow apart, and on her visits home they seem unable to communicate as before: “I miss you, [Laura] thinks, even as her daughter is standing there.”
This touching reticence – so unlike the effusive manner of the Hungarian relatives, whose preferred form of address is a loud “Dar-link!” – prevents them from learning just how much they have in common.
For just as Laura, dragged along to Hungarian market fairs and social gatherings, struggles to understand the ins and outs of central European customs, Marina at school finds herself bewildered by the ossified hierarchies and silly rituals of the English upper classes. And just as Laura’s living arrangements have seen her return to a sort of pseudo-adolescence – sleeping on the couch; sneaking out of the house for romantic rendezvous – Marina escapes her dorm to meet her boyfriend at night.
The plot turns when Marina develops an awkward crush on the boyfriend’s father, a well-known presenter of highbrow television programmes – think Melvyn Bragg but with a lupine glint – whom Rozsi mysteriously despises.
The narrative threads are perhaps tied together a little too conveniently in the end, and some of the novel’s darker themes – loneliness; cultural dislocation – left unexplored.
But the prose is a pure joy. Mendelson has a way with simile: heavy browed Marina looks “like Frieda Kahlo in a filthy mood”; Laura’s nemesis Mitzi Sudgeon is “pale, like something found in a cleft in a Carpathian mountainside”. And the whole book is sprinkled with handsome Hungarian phrases – Krumplisaláta, Hogy vagy, Egyszersmind – like a strudel dusted with sugar. It makes for a deliciously moreish read.