In his round-up of this year’s Man Booker longlisted titles, Philip Hensher called Almost English the novel that everyone would love. It’s a social comedy involving a homesick teenager, an obnoxious historian and a timid, beholden mother who lacks the gumption to be anything other than grateful to her vanished husband’s family –the trio of Hungarian great-aunts who took her in when he deserted her. The aunts adore Laura and her daughter Marina. They are even paying for Marina’s recent move to an expensive boarding school, a move Marina bitterly regrets.
There are so many opportunities for comedy here – the beautifully realized accents of the aunts, as they declare, ‘Vot-apity,’ and refuse to submit to the ‘rid –iculos’ rules and regulations of Marina’s new school; Marina’s crush on Simon Flowers, whom she adores from afar but whom the reader can see is affected and unworthy of her; the energetic abundance of the aunts’ social gatherings and their refusal to see anything in other than positive terms. They are the heroines of this novel for me – larger than life, colourful and uncompromising. The plot, however, hinges on the unsaid, and that ultimately made for a frustrating reading experience. Marina’s misery at boarding school is acute, but she never asks to come home. The family of the boyfriend she doesn’t really want is unremittingly horrible; the predatory older man is simply a ghastly predatory older man. Laura misses Marina intensely, but never manages anything other than a brief postcard. Laura’s having a half-hearted affair with the local GP, but doesn’t seem to feel much for him either positively or negatively. Laura in particular allows herself to be buffeted around by other people; worse still, she knows it. Unremitting victimhood is wearing, especially when the means of change lie squarely in the victims’ hands.
The humour of Almost English is in the same vein as that of Peep Show, or Black Books, or any comedy that relies on abject and absolute humiliation of the characters. I can only laugh at this kind of humour when the writing serves to distance my emotional investment. Drop the Dead Donkey, for example, is peopled by characters who are so unsympathetic that I’m fine with laughing my head off at their plights. But Mendelson drew me so close to the characters that, at times, I could do nothing other than cringe with irritation. The novel is set in the 1980s – perhaps, as a child of the 80s myself, the agony of the teenage years was just too close to the bone (and Almost English has a strong autobiographical element). But ultimately, I feel there was a mismatch between the engaging, emotional narrative and the comedic situations in which the three-dimensional, wonderfully realized mother and daughter are placed.