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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem