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Almost a Hoot

Susan McCallum-Smith

Almost English, by Charlotte Mendelson, Mantle, 390 pp, £13.99, ISBN: 978-1447229933

“I thought childbirth was a sort of journey that you could send dispatches home from, but of course it is not ‑ it is home. Everywhere else now, is ‘abroad’,” wrote Anne Enright in “Milk”, an essay from her astute collection Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood. “A child came out of me. I cannot understand this, or try to explain it. Except to say that my past life has become foreign to me. Except to say that I am prey, for the rest of my life, to every small thing. Damn.”

Forty-year-old Laura Farkas is similarly prey to every small thing. She and her teenage daughter, Marina, are the dual protagonists of Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson, which was long-listed for the 2013 Man Booker prize. About parenthood, adolescence, class and identity, Almost English trills along like an opera buffa minus the music, in which mother and daughter suffer humiliations and misunderstandings, so blinded by fear and pride that they are unable to see that their deep love for one another is reciprocated. “How, she would like to know, can anyone stand motherhood?” thinks Laura. “Do other women live as she does, trying to steady themselves for the phone call which will bring their life to an end?”

It is 1988 in London, and Laura and Marina share a two-and-a-half-bedroom flat in the “barely respectable depths of Bayswater” with the elderly Károlyi sisters, Rozsi, Ildi and Zsuzsi, the surviving stalwarts of an intimidating matriarchal line. This Hungarian triptych, the mother and two aunts of Laura’s former husband Peter ‑ who abandoned Laura and Marina more than thirteen years before ‑ are secondary characters so well-sketched in EM Forster’s “flat” style that they threaten to monopolise the reader’s affection to the detriment of everyone else in the novel.

Life with the Károlyi sisters is marvellous, infuriating and stifling, conducted in an atmosphere of “tuberose, caraway and garlic” and in droll central European intonation: “Dar-link”, “von-darefool”, “vosh-ingmochine”, “You vont von-illó too, I buy it next veek.” Laura sleeps on the sofa and keeps her clothes in the sideboard, while Marina is tucked in a little cubby off the hall that is part of the runway to the loo. Rozsi, Ildi and Zsuzsi never mention Peter’s (Pay-tare’s) desertion: “To the Károlyi sisters all men are sacred; they have only to change a light bulb to be deified.” Ladylike in public, free-spirited in private, they keep each other company in the bath and stump “around the flat in nothing but supportive Swiss underwear and rubber orthopedic shoes”. They spend their evenings watching Last Year at Marienbad or listening to Rimsky-Korsakov while nibbling marzipan fruits. The family survives on Rozsi’s income as the manager of a lingerie shop, “FEMINA OF KENSINGTON”, and “occasional bits of proof-reading for Czech and Hungarian acquaintances”, supplemented by Laura’s salary as receptionist to Dr Alistair Sudgeon, with whom she is conducting a desultory affair, snatching the odd clinch in his consulting room under his framed certificates and National Trust castle plans.

When the novel opens Marina has made the capricious decision, after viewing a St Trinian’s film on TV, to complete her sixth form at Combe Abbey, a public boarding school hundreds of miles from home. Too proud to admit she’s abandoning both a family she adores and a local comprehensive at which she’d fitted nicely into a group of similarly bookish oddballs with a soft spot for Laura Ashley, she twists her whim into a test to see whether her mother loves her enough to drag her home, a test Laura appears to fail, having decided to prove her love by letting Marina go.

Marina is sixteen-going-on-seventeen and she knows that she’s naïve. A geeky girl who considers Dead Souls light reading, she is preternaturally alert to slights, and “shy; clumsy; short; fatherless; scared of cats, and the dark, and the future. She is going to be a doctor but knows she isn’t up to it, and if she doesn’t get into Cambridge then her life is over.” With her dark brows and thick plait of hair she looks “like Frieda Kahlo in a filthy mood”. Her deepest fear, so terrifying, so typical, is that her fellow-students may learn about her weird foreign relations; “She wants to be proud of the family peasant-cot but the dirty crouching truth is she is ashamed.” She preps for elevation into the scholastic upper classes by reading Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Billy Bunter, fantasising about a social life akin to a photo spread in Town and Country magazine, sprinkled liberally with tartan and antlers. Her dream of rooming in a castellated garret with the delicate-boned offspring of minor royalty is crushed when she arrives at the modernised end-terrace housing the girls’ dorm, its fire doors “decorated with pictures of kittens in hammocks” and meets her roommate, “the daughter of a millionaire poultry-feed manufacturer near Chichester”. Combe Abbey’s caste system delineates the cool girls from the dorks, the hot from the not, while the boys call each other “flid” and “spaz” and “faggot” and refer to the locals as peasants. Marina yearns for experience with the desperation of the yet-to-be-deflowered. I, she thinks, “am not a good girl, I am ready for love. Ready for sex. Dear God, let it start.” Failing to land her crush, Simon Flowers, “senior music scholar, day boy, bound for Cambridge”, she tolerates the sweaty advances of “paleish, slabby, Guy Viney”, especially after meeting his dishy dad, a celebrity historian with vampirish charm. Cue lots of blushing and fumbling inside itchy jumpers and needle-cut corduroy.

Almost English is Mendelson’s fourth novel and her previous works, Love and Idleness, Daughters of Jerusalem, and When We Were Bad, garnered her a reputation for witty panache. Her plaudits include a shortlisting for the Orange Prize, a Somerset Maugham Award and a John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Having recently endured the new James Salter, I wanted to love this book, so I’m sure my disappointment is disproportionate. The more I pondered my response to Almost English (and as the editors of the drb can attest, fingers-drumming, I pondered a heck of a long time), the less I was surprised it didn’t make it on to the Man Booker shortlist. Indeed I was surprised it had been longlisted at all. I couldn’t shake my overall impression that this entire novel is vague.

Some of its ambiguity is for comic effect, namely the mystery of Laura’s in-laws, who are introduced as Hungarian but whose roots prove tangled. A deliberately convoluted revelation dished up in the latter pages explains some characters’ motivations but, thankfully, Mendelson cleverly complicates any attempt to elucidate where the heck these people are actually from. Sometimes, while living in the United States, I had to explain that, despite being Scottish, I didn’t “go home to England” to see my family, so I felt for Marina, whose predicament is on a much grander scale. In an accompanying author’s note Mendelson shares her inspiration behind the novel: “As the grandchild of TransCarpathian-Ruthenian former subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who were born in what is now the Ukraine, learned their sums in Russian, spoke Hungarian together yet considered themselves Czech, I grew up knowing only the smallest and most confused details about where my maternal grandparents came from.” Such slippery ethnicity, the consequence of centuries of greedy sovereign gerrymandering, affects Marina’s sense of self; the ground seems to shift beneath her feet. As for the nominally Hungarian Károlyi sisters ‑ Rozsi, Ildi and Zsuzsi ‑ they became conflated in my mind, inevitably, with those glamorous serial matrimonialists, the Gabors ‑ Magda, Zsa Zsa and Eva ‑ and whenever one of them purred “Dar-link” the novel swerved, confusingly, into an alternate sparkly universe of diamonds and Disney.

Almost English flips back and forth in close third person between Laura and Marina. Marina sounds and acts like your typical indecisive, klutzy teenager. A second source of ambiguity arises because her mother does too, and at times it is difficult to tell them apart. Laura “is unable to make even the smallest decision”. Page after page she whines with exaggerated pathos, “I cannot go on like this,” until my sisterly-sympathy for her, being a middle-aged mother and klutz myself, wore thin. We sense she is merely toying with the idea of, for example, jumping in a canal, therefore we feel toyed with too. Mendelson balks before brutal satire so her prose never feels dangerous; Zoe Heller or Iris Murdoch might have been tempted to let Laura accidentally fall in that canal and drown. When Peter walks back into her life, suffering from a mysterious medical condition, Laura seems unable (and the author seems unwilling) to clarify exactly what’s wrong with him, and again the reader may feel frustrated and manipulated. “She could hardly have asked Peter herself,” thinks Laura, but why not? Especially as Peter once accused her of living “a provisional life”, with a habitual, “constant gingerish prodding of the unthinkable”. Jane Austen, whom I assume Mendelson admires, exposed her heroines’ flaws without severing our empathy through a clever manipulation of distance, shifting back and forth between omniscient and intimate points of view. Unfortunately Mendelson doesn’t provide the perspective necessary for the reader to absorb contradictory information about her characters. We are told that “most of Laura’s actions are dictated by the thought of how she’d feel if she didn’t do them”, yet she refuses to ask Marina if she is homesick because the answer might prove upsetting, protecting herself from emotional pain to the detriment of her daughter’s needs. At the risk of making a whopping judgment I’m in no position to prove, such muddy confusion indicates a lack of authorial control. I don’t believe Mendelson intended to portray Laura as selfish; I believe she hoped to calibrate reader empathy evenly across both her heroines.

Ethnicity can be problematic and human nature can dither, but language needs exactitude ‑ especially in the dangerous territory of tragicomedy. It is at the level of the sentence that Almost English exhibits its most troubling symptoms. How frustrating, because when Mendelson gets it right, her prose is a joy; such as her description of Alexander Viney as “an intellectual stevedore” or Laura’s father-in-law, Zoltan, as a man “who eats bananas with a knife and fork”. She knows some B&B proprietresses “tend to strip mattresses too soon”, and about Laura’s perk of free ballpoint pens with “CYNOSTEX FOR CYSTITIS” printed on the side, and that the yearly Hungarian bazaar has “tapes of gypsy flute music,” and “someone’s well-meaning English husband … manning a second-hand book stall featuring a 1973 Austin Rover users’ manual”. During Marina’s catastrophic weekend at Stoker, the Vineys’ country pile, she covets “the luxury of having insects you forget to sweep up”, and meets Guy’s mum, who dresses with “the ramshackle moth-eaten abandon of the inherited rich” and remarks, insincerely, in her “Radio Four voice” that “we’re terribly dull, I’m afraid”.

Mendelson’s imaginative powers are so abundant that her greatest challenge seems to be keeping them in check. When shifting from straight description into metaphor her specificity wobbles, and too many allusions bump against one another, muffling each individual punch. For example, Laura observes her in-laws “like a less successful Jane Goodall”. A lovely line, but it is followed a couple of pages later by her feeling she’s “being raised by wolves”. These are two metaphors about animal and human relationships, yes, but different types of animals and in very different relationships. After a swiftly effective character sketch of Mitzi, Dr Sudgeon’s wife, we learn Mitzi “makes Laura think of the Siege of Leningrad: she would sell you food or eat you, with the same indifference”. I get her drift but surely the parallel is between Mitzi and a survivor of the siege, not the siege itself? A similar example has Rozsi “unbuttoning her checked raincoat swiftly, like a huntsman flaying a boar”. My knowledge of taxidermy is limited but I don’t think huntsmen do their flaying from the inside-out ‑ they’re not usually the ones wearing the coats. I chuckled over lines that, in retrospect, I didn’t actually understand, such as “tears have begun to pour from her like a nosebleed”, or, she was “pale, like something found in a cleft in a Carpathian mountainside”, while others, such as, “her throat aches as an orphan’s might” or “old Combeian fathers beget Combe sons, like child abusers” are simply baffling.

Once your reading snags on one dodgy metaphor, it tends to snag on more and enjoyment begins to fray. To infer that Almost English is almost funny because the prose is almost English but not quite, makes me feel like a party-pooper or an obnoxious editorial version of Mr Darcy who, to paraphrase his views on women, never looks at any sentence but to see a blemish. Maybe those who read purely for pleasure (though I’ve never considered the Man Booker judging panel along quite those lines) need not consider the same sentence twice and will bob through Almost English just dandy. But where does the responsibility for clarity lie? Or the responsibility to rein in exaggeration? With the author or the editor? Was Mendelson’s editor so busy laughing (like me) at inferred jokes that he or she forgot to check if each one physically and grammatically made sense? Comic writing is as dangerous as performing stand-up: the timing and delivery are all. Masters of the form, such as Waugh, Wodehouse, Greene, Bainbridge, Saunders, St Aubyn etc., honed (or hone) their prose to achieve a marvellous lucidity, knowing it must not only be entertaining straight out the gate but smart and true when the reader returns to savour it. Comedy is the sharpest weapon in the writer’s arsenal, sharper than tragedy I would contend, and much more effective at slicing human experience back to the bone. Mendelson’s worldview is satirical, her allusions are clever, but her execution is sloppy; it is as though she were chopping prime produce for goulash with a blunt knife.
21/10.2013

Susan McCallum-Smith is the author of Slipping the Moorings (2009), and her essays and reviews have appeared in The Scottish Review of Books, AGNI, The Southern Review and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Originally from Scotland, she currently lives in Ireland.

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