AS the granddaughter of Hungarian immigrants to the UK, it was perhaps inevitable that the novelist Charlotte Mendelson would one day mine her family’s experiences. Given that the resulting novel is
Almost English — a tale of adolescent insecurity, secrets and lies and the eccentricities of the émigré — it’s to our gain that she did.
The heroine of Almost English is Marina, a preternaturally intelligent but emotionally naïve teenager, growing up in west London in the late 1980s. Her life — and the lives of those she lives with, specifically her mother, grandmother and two exquisitely inimitable great-aunts — is turned upside down when she decamps for a boarding school. Though she expects Blytonesque jolly hockey sticks, it turns out to be a hotbed of teen vindictiveness, sexually entitled teenage boys and Sloaney Kate Middleton types.
A vague romance offers Marina a ticket to a very different life from her own, as she gets to know the upper-class Viney family, with the predictably frosty blonde wife and arrogant but charming patriarch, in whom Marina identifies the perfect role model.
The novel, set over a term at Combe Abbey School, follows Marina as she attempts to reconcile who she thinks she wants to become, with her eccentric, Hungarian-immigrant family, who are introduced to us via absurdly large amounts of food, wafts of perfume and accented English. To Rozsi, Marina’s grandmother, life is “von-darefool”; to Marina, the family is a much-loved burden to shoulder.
Meanwhile, as her daughter struggles with the peculiarities of a very English life, her mother Laura — an English rose somehow swallowed up by the Hungarians — considers how her life has reached this point, and wonders whether she will ever move past the disappearance of Marina’s father.
The two stories are delightfully interwoven to reach a climax in which various secrets come to light. Mother and daughter misunderstand each other and fail appallingly to communicate, while the clucking chorus of Hungarians look on, boasting big earrings and a well-developed ability to do exactly what they want.
Marina, neurotic, innocent, is a delightful heroine; not necessarily likeable as a young woman, but someone you know would be fantastic company in a few years. Laura is rather more listless, constantly thinking rather than acting, and is perhaps less easy to root for. For much of the novel, I wanted to shake her into taking control.
Almost English is a colourful, clever novel with more than enough intrigue to keep you turning the pages. And although Mendelson’s Hungarians are not designated as Jewish, their unapologetic outsider status, and their refusal to adjust their curious behaviours to British expectations, will surely be familiar to many whose family arrived as immigrants. An enjoyable, convincing book.