Picador/ 400 pp.
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Hello and welcome to Isaac Encounters! Today, I’ll be encountering Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson. The story revolves around a mother, Laura, and her daughter, Marina. When the father abandons the family and disappears without a trace, Laura— with daughter in tow—has to stay with her rambunctious Hungarian in-laws due to financial constraints.
Marina is put into a traditional English boarding school, Combe Abbey but struggles to fit in due to her mixed heritage. Meanwhile, Laura tries to make a living but continuously makes a mess of her life such as having an affair with her boss.
As if things cannot get more complicated, Laura’s husband, Peter, reappears and she is at a loss. On top of the many years of hurt and resentment, she has to figure out the best way to tell the family.
As for Marina, she bumps into a fellow student, Guy Viney, at a bus-stop and eventually starts dating him. To her surprise, she finds out that his father is Alexander Viney, a celebrated TV historian. The elder Viney encourages her to change her major to history and as he gets closer to her, things take a dark turn.
I have no idea why this book is long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. While it is not downright awful, it is hardly inspiring or exciting. Apart from the colourful descriptions of the Hungarian family and culture, most of the book consists of Laura’s constant self-loathing and Marina feeling like an outsider. The plot is predictable and occasionally melodramatic.
Worse still, there are quite a few clichés that go with the melodrama: Laura is nervous to meet her husband as she bites her lip till it starts bleeding, Marina is nervous to the point of having a stomach ache, Laura hates her husband for abandoning them but capitulates to his bad boy charm. These clichés are in the same category as peeing in your pants to represent fear—it should be avoided at all costs unless it significantly adds to the story.
To top it off, there are too many complications in the book and Mendelson has left most of them undeveloped and cold. A narrower focus would make for a shorter and more enjoyable read.
Amidst all the mess, there is one moment where Mendelson’s gift as a writer peeks through. The family suspects that Marina has been in constant contact with Alexander Viney and asks Laura to investigate. She talks to Marina despite not knowing why the relatives are worried.
Marina pushes Laura away despite wanting her to stay. Laura tries her best to comfort her daughter despite having her own problems gnawing at her. The scene is short and the words are few but the way it conveys the mother-daughter bond and the unspeakable hurt is absolutely beautiful.
Unfortunately, one beautiful moment is hardly enough to save a messy book.