‘Men leave. Children leave. All that is left is death.’
Almost English tells the stories of sixteen-year-old Marina, her mother Laura and, her grandmother (Laura’s mother-in-law) Rozsi. All three live in a flat in Westminster Court, Bayswater, along with Rozsi’s sisters, ‘virginial Ildi and beautiful Zsuzsi’.
If you happened to come across them taking their cold constitutionals in Hyde Park this afternoon, they would have seemed perfectly normal elderly Londoners, looking forward to a quiet night in with a cup of tea and a chop and the Radio Times.
At least that is how they think they seem.
But come a little closer. ‘Dar-link’ is their usual form of address.
The ‘three old women’ are Hungarian. Laura and Marina moved in with Rozsi when Peter, Laura’s husband, disappeared. The other two women soon followed.
Laura sleeps on the sofa, her clothes in the sideboard, leaving her with no privacy as the three older women wander past to use the bathroom. It’s quite incredible that she’s managed to keep her lover a secret from them, although it’s a secret she needs to keep as she’s having an affair with her employer, Dr Alistair Sudgeon.
Laura’s biggest concern though is Marina. Marina’s recently started attending Combe Abbey, a boarding school in Devon, an event which has left Laura feeling raw:
Can it be normal to cry in department store toilets, at advertising hoardings or thoughts of distant famine?…without Marina, a layer of resistance has started to peel away.
Did it happen in the run-up to Marina’s going, or on the day she left? In either case, it is Laura’s own fault; she should have stopped her. It was a test of motherhood, which she failed.
Marina, meanwhile, is having a miserable time. She has a crush on a boy who doesn’t know she exists; the girls she shares accommodation with are vile, and no one’s given her a nickname, which suggests that no one’s that interested in her – the ultimate insult for a teenager. Worse than all of this though is her opinion of her mother:
There was a question buried in the middle, like an aniseed ball: did her mother know her, love her, enough to refuse to be parted from her child? Apparently not. She just let it happen, flicking through prospectuses, trailing around with Marina and the great-aunts at open days, and did not once protest.
Mother and daughter in a prime example of failure to communicate, believing they’re doing what the other wants. Add to this the secrets they’re both keeping – there’s a whopper in there – and you’ve got a cracking story.
In Almost English, Mendelson explores the mother/daughter relationship during a period that proves difficult for most – the late teens. It’s an astute portrayal of the desires parents have for their children, what teenagers really want from their parents and the mismatch between the two.
Beside this, the setting of Combe Abbey allows Mendelson to lampoon the bombast of the English upper class, for starters, and then expose the thinly veiled hideousness behind it.
I thoroughly enjoyed the novel; its tone is fresh and often playful, using humour to highlight ridiculous and inconsistent behaviour and the ending’s an absolute joy.