Cannonball Read 6, Book 7: Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

17286032Now this is a bit more like it. My Booker Longlist Forced March continues, but I had high hopes for this book before I picked it up. And they were, for the most part, met and met well. A novel of families who never talk to each other, even though three generations of one family are all squished into one tiny flat in London. Laura was married to Peter until he left her and she was forced to move in with three of his ancient relatives. Laura’s daughter, Marina, is sixteen years old and decided she would rather go to boarding school in Dorset. Presumably, this was to get away from the stifling influence of the elderly relatives and her unstable mother, but now she’s there, she thinks she might have made a terrible mistake…..

Between them, Laura and Marina have to be two of the most insecure and emotionally unstable characters I’ve read in a REALLY long time. Laura is mostly an unspeakably awful woman. Her estranged husband re-appears after vanishing for a fair chunk of time and tells her he may be dying of cancer. Laura handles this by sleeping with him again while telling nobody (not even his ancient relatives) that he has rematerialised. Juggling this turn of events with having an affair with her boss means that hopeless hateful self-involved Laura doesn’t notice her poor daughter all but self-destructing.

Marina is only sixteen, so I totally forgave her awkward indecision, her constant paranoia, her self loathing, all of it. It’s so beautifully, painfully written and well, we’ve all been there haven’t we? We’ve all thought we were dating the wrong boy while mooning hopelessly over the school heartthrob who doesn’t know we exist. We’ve all thought we chose the wrong subjects to study. And we’ve all wanted our family to vanish off the face off the earth and just stop embarrassing us, for the love of all that’s holy. So I defy anyone to read Marina’s story and not, at some point, see a little bit of their sixteen year old self in there somewhere.

That’s not to say Almost English is a dull misery fest. It’s often very funny. Marina’s boyfriend’s father, TV historian Alexander Viney, tries to discern Marina’s heritage, commenting that “you look like you should be ululating at Mafia funerals”, which was just one of the many moments I laughed out loud. And Mendelson knows whereof she speaks when it comes to the Eastern European relatives of Marina, since her maternal grandparents were, in her words, “Hungarian-speaking-Czech, Ruthenian for about 10 minutes, Carpathian mountain-y, impossible to describe”. Consequently, their heavily accented English dialogue and fantastically no-nonsense outlook treads a VERY fine line between affectionate ribbing and outright caricature (erring, just, on the affectionate side).

This is a hugely enjoyable read, and one that is often frustrating for the right reasons. So many times, I found myself wanting to yell at stupid selfish Laura, and Marina has some genuinely shocking moments of self loathing, which made my jaw drop. But then, right at the end, it got a little bit frustrating for the wrong reasons. A drawn out mystery with Viney and his connection to Marina’s grandparents, when it’s revealed, left me with an overwhelming sense of “that’s it?”. The end is a little abrupt as well, but maybe I didn’t want it to be over before someone punched Laura in her massively annoying face. Easily the most enjoyable of the Longlist books so far.


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