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.

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
 
Mendelson evokes the boredom of British boarding school life. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear