Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson: Problems of exaggeration

Claire Lowdon on Charlotte Mendelson's humorous new novel, a family drama which suffers from plausibility issues.

A pupil at boarding school.
Mendelson evokes the boredom of British boarding school life. Photograph: Getty Images.
Almost English
Charlotte Mendelson
Mantle, 288pp, £16.99
 
Charlotte Mendelson’s four novels – which are all about families – share many family resemblances. They satirise oddball minorities: Oxford academics, London Jews, English public school children, Hungarian expats. An overarching theme is coming of age, or failing to. There is a Dickensian love of caricature and plot and an elaborate prose style to match (“modernised” by the exclusive use of the present tense). Most of the action takes place inside the heads of the main characters, who guard terrible secrets from their loved ones. As in Dickens, the comedy comes with a sting, a poignant counterpoint to all the rollicking social satire. Or, at least, that’s the idea.
 
Almost English revolves around a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. The swotty Marina Farkas has left Ealing Girls’ for Combe Abbey, a minor public school in Dorset that has recently started taking girls in the sixth form. She is friendless and homesick but unable to tell her mother, Laura. In London, Laura pines for Marina, longing for the smell of her hair. Desperate not to worry her daughter, she rewrites her letters “until nothing she wants to say is left”.
 
Like Daughters of Jerusalem (2003) and When We Were Bad (2007), Almost English opens at a party with a bang. Mendelson excels at group scenes and at distilling the essence of a subclass. The rare breed under observation here is the Hungarian émigré: “Their bags contain poppy-seed pastries as long as your forearm; velvet-packed pralines, smuggled by fur-wrapped pensioners on the overnighter from Berne.” It is the 80th birthday of Marina’s grandmother Rozsi Farkas, who lives with her sisters, Zsuzsi and Ildi, in west London. Thirteen years ago, Rozsi’s son, Peter, abandoned Laura and Marina; now they, too, live in the “Vest-minstaircourt” basement flat. The three stylish old ladies have a mysterious past in Hungary. Hidden family intrigue surfaces when Marina befriends Guy Viney, the son of a TV historian.
 
Combe Abbey is well drawn and the locus of much of the novel’s humour. Extracts from the school’s almanac evoke the uncarpeted, echoing boredom of British boarding school life: “Countryman Society talk by Mr Kendal: ‘Forestry: an Ancient Craft’, Old Library, 7:30pm.” Then there is the jubilant cruelty of boys unused to co-education, rating the girls and posting the scores on the house noticeboards. At Combe, you are nothing without a nickname but be careful what you wish for. It’s all right for the beautiful Marie-Claire van Dere (“Vanderwear”); less so for the ugly Sarah Molle (“Anal Mole”).
 
Mendelson is good on teenage romance. At first Marina barely notices Guy: “His maleness is irrelevant, like a dog’s.” They fall into a queasy relationship, separated by the “sixinch rule” at school, taking advantage of their freedom on weekends out. Marina is unconvinced but goes along with it anyway, enduring “the questing way that his lips met hers in the ticket queue”.
 
When the humour flops, the problem is exaggeration. Marina’s visit to the Viney country pile is hammed up, Guy’s snooty 17-year-old sister uttering such improbabilities as, “One becomes so protective . . .” and sneering at Marina for failing to dress for dinner. More troublesome are the gear changes from funny to serious. Mendelson’s first book, Love in Idleness (2001), was saturated with overwriting; since then the habit has been curbed but not cured. A small sample: “Down she sinks into the seas of self-pity, bitter waves of misery whacking her on the head”; “The only way to live apart from one’s child is to shut up one’s heart in a metal box with chains and rust and padlocks.” Houdini was Hungarian, after all.
 
Both Love in Idleness and Daughters of Jerusalem involve characters who self-harm. In When We Were Bad, Frances Rubin ex - periences obsessive-compulsive disorder as an adolescent; in Almost English, it’s Marina who suffers from OCD. Every few chapters, Laura casually contemplates suicide. Often, the psychology fails to convince; disorders are being co-opted for instant gravitas.
 
Issues with plausibility make for a frustrating read. Guy attends the Hungarian party, so why is he later surprised to learn that Marina is part-Hungarian? There are too many of these inconsistencies. Tension mounts in the crudest of ways. “Then everything changes,” we are told on page 63. On page 77: “Everything has changed. She does not know this.” On page 115: “Much, much later . . . she wonders if this was the moment when she chose the interesting path through the forest, where trouble lay in wait.” The start is promising: you are intrigued by the larger-than-life characters and their already tangled web. Yet Mendelson heaps on the motivations and plot twists until the teetering pile threatens to collapse.
 
Asked if she bases her characters on people she knows, she once replied: “It’s much more fun inventing characters because you can get them to do what you want.” Perhaps, but only within reason – even in the comic novel. If you are writing in the realist tradition, you can only exaggerate so far.
 
Claire Lowdon is the assistant editor of Areté