Book Review: Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

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I came across this book by way of a literary event I attended earlier this year.  ‘Almost English’ By Charlotte Mendleson is a book about not fitting it.  It is the story of sixteen year old Marina, her fragile mother Laura and her three slightly eccentric Hungarian relatives.  They all live together in a tiny flat in West London.  In order to try and fit in and escape the Hungarian anomalies that Marina feels have held her back her whole life she has persuaded her family to send her to a traditional English Public School.  This only serves to make life more intolerable for Marina.  As Marina tries  to navigate her way through this alien world she doesn’t understand whilst keeping her family from the the truth Laura is also negotiating her own secrets and sadness.

The all female cast is fantastic, they are all strong, any of them could have had the leading role.  The images particularly of the aunts are wonderful,  the clothes, furs and jewellery, the inappropriate presents they send to Marina and of course the strong hungarian accents which are so clear.  There is humour in this novel and some of the funniest lines are given to the aunts.  This perhaps has something to do with their ‘Von-darefool’ (wonderful) pronunciation.  At the back of the novel is a guide to pronunciation.  This is surprisingly helpful, and I loved that English words such as  darling  – ‘dar-link’  were always written with Hungarian emphasis.  As the novel progressed the Hungarian-English was practically tripping off my tongue!

The novel is full of relational misunderstandings particularly between Laura and Marina.  Their desperate need to protect each other results in such a difficult mother / daughter relationship that I wanted to to intervene.

“Laura imagines telling her the trusty……She could say: I can hardly bear to think about you .  It hurts everywhere, my knuckles, my shoulders: a permanent ache.  When you’re away I sometimes have to wear sunglasses on the bus to hide my eyes”

I longed for them to be honest with each other.  I suspect because as a reader I had willingly invested in both of them, I wanted to make it all alright for them

Marinas homesickness is so painful I felt my own stomach lurch as I thought back to my first weeks away from home at University when all I wanted to do was speak to my family but doing so made it worse. I longed to say to Marina, it will be ok, you won’t always feel like this.

She cannot cry now, about to go into chemistry.  All day she aches for her mother, who has not written again, but she saves her sodium chloride tears for the night”

The idea of admitting how she feels is unbearable.  It is too big, too easily ripped open” 

Charlotte Mendelson writes  heart wrenching scenes about not fitting in so well but also conveys the ridiculous with warmth and affection. This is a satisfyingly robust novel.  Its full of big food, big Hungarian personalities and difficult, messy relationships. I joyfully recommend  it, preferably along side a hearty hungarian red wine and a rich hungarian stew. ‘Von-darefool darl-ink’

 images via Changing-Pages

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