To be fair this is not a bad book, it just annoyed the sweet bejesus out of me!
Almost English, is Mendelson’s fourth novel, which was longlisted for the Man Booker prize last year and it is really difficult to see why!
Ostensibly it tells the story of Marina Farkas, “a 16-year-old who has recently swapped Bayswater for Dorset, and Ealing Girls’ for Combe Abbey, a boarding school replete with every single ancient ritual and socially aspirational accoutrement that its paying customers might demand.”
Now surrounded by boys (the school only recently went coed) Marina pines for her Mother Laura and her three elderly Hungarian female relatives “her formidable lingerie-selling grandmother Rozsi and two great-aunts, the glamorous Zsuzsi and comforting Ildi.”
Set in 1988 (though not any 1988 I recognised) it takes place from the p.o.v of Marina and her Mother, swapping from one to the other as they both get emotionally tangled-up with a variety of men and their own insecurities and the difficult love they share.
And the book would have been sooooooo much shorter if any of the characters HAD JUST TALKED TO EACH OTHER.
Admittedly I read this on the back of a trying family Xmas where no one would talk about anything real, so it was a tender subject for me. But I found the two female protagonists and their unvoiced anxieties about each other exasperating and I disliked greatly how they were defined, or rather their self-esteem and sense of self were defined, by their relationships with men.
There was some beautiful prose in this, especially in the description of the Hungarian-ness of the family, and moments when Laura pining for her daughter were made very real and made me want to phone my Mum…but…but…it was just so annoying!
I found Marina’s sexual naivety to be unbelievable, a contrived narrative necessity, not endearing characterisation and the big payoff that I struggled through the story for, is neither a payoff nor big!
Am sure a lot of clever reviewers in the Guardian and the like have stressed how the story is about secrets and denial and Englishness, and how the narrative style reflects this. But such style does not make for a good read but an annoying one. Often we are lead up to a revelation and then abandoned: Peter tells Laura of his past lovers and all we hear of this confession is that “it was not what she expected”. We are never told any details of how it was not as expected. WHY????!!!!!
So I would recommend this if you are happy to be teased by an unreliable narrator or two (not my thing). Or a child of yours has left for boarding school. Or you want a bit of insight into an overprotective Mother. Or, even, at a push, if you like to shout exasperated things at a book and get funny looks on public transport. Otherwise I wouldn’t rush to read it.