Finally, I’m returning to reviews (even though I read this over a month ago, I’ve only had time to finish it this morning!), as life begins to return to normal for me.
Almost English – Charlotte Mendelson
Almost English was Longlisted for the Booker Prize, but didn’t make the short list, and frankly I’m glad of that. In fact, I’m not convinced it deserved being nominated at all, as it’s easily the least enjoyable of the nominees I have read. Set in 1980s London, the overall point of the story is to show the struggle of the protagonist, Marina, at presenting herself as a normal English girl and concealing the truth of her identity, that she is actually half Hungarian and lives with her very out of touch grandmother and great aunts.
Part of the problem is that from the first chapter, we are told exactly what the narrators’ conflicts are, and while they do evolve, there’s no subtly to it. Marina hates boarding school, but is embarrassed by the fact. This point is hammered home repeatedly, as is the shifting relationships she has with boys (and men). We are told exactly what she thinks of them outright, with no room for intuition. The same with Laura, Marina’s mother. She hates her ex-husband for abandoning them, she can’t stand living with her in-laws, but can’t bring herself to leave either them or her boss, with whom she’s having an affair. When things get complicated for either character, they just whine and fret about it, rather than trying to rectify the situation. This leads into my next complaint, which is that neither of the narrators possess a backbone with which to stand up to the forces prevailing on them. As far as overbearing elderly relatives goes, this is fair enough, but neither Marina nor her mother ever seem to actually defend themselves or do anything to get out of their situations (except against each other), and I don’t think that having two wet blankets such as these as protagonists did much in Almost English’s favour, aside from providing it with a plot.
Despite these things, I think the reason I’m most disappointed about Almost English is that in my mind, Mendelson doesn’t deliver what she promises. In the Author’s Note at the end, she states that she grew up in a similar family situation, to Marina, with Grandparents that grew up in the land that is now Ukraine, ruled by the Austrians, speaking Russian at school but Hungarian at home and considered themselves Czech, and who did not talk about their pasts. This has the potential for a really interesting plot, but what Mendelson choses to do with it, after building up the secrecy through the whole book, is a fairly incoherent story of betrayal and dynastic politics. It does make sense, although I’m a little confused by the chronology as the process of uncovering it is rather piecemeal and there isn’t a really coherent explanation, so it just ends up being quite dissatisfying.
To be honest, as with Five Star Billionaire, Almost English was such a chore to read that I found it difficult to appreciate much about it. I suppose the characterisation is good, as despite everything I was able to very much picture Marina as a real person, though admittedly someone who needed to have some sense shaken into her. Aside from that though, because of their own lack of problem-solving abilities, I find myself unable to actually sympathise too much, if at all with any of the characters. This meant I spent most of the book, waiting for it to end, which I think says rather a lot.