Funny side of fitting in
If you’ve ever felt like a social outcast and longed to fit in, this book is for you.
IT can be argued that Almost English is author Charlotte Mendelson’s take on isolation, coming of age, being a foreigner not only in a foreign land but in your own home as well, and the issues immigrants face.
Set in the 1980s, the protagonist of the novel is 16-year-old Marina, who lives in a small and cramped flat in West London with mother Laura, grandmother Rozsi and two great-aunts, Idli and Zsuzsi.
While on the surface this set up looks very ordinary, all is not as it seems in the house where Marina lives.
Her grandmother and great-aunts are Hungarian and they have brought into Marina’s life all sorts of outdated Eastern European cultural practices.
The older relations frequently eclipse (in tone, volume and emotional outbursts) Laura, who is in an emotional wasteland from her lack of luck with men.
Laura is still reeling from the disappearance of her husband when Marina was three years old.
This resulted in the English Laura having to depend on her Hungarian in-laws for the past 13 years.
At the moment, Laura is in the midst of a dreary, passionless affair with her charmless, emotionally unavailable employer who sees her as nothing more than the answer his baser needs when they arise.
This leads Laura to feeling depressed, unattractive and even suicidal.
And so Marina finds herself living with an emotionally devastated mother and loud older relations with their utterly peculiar Eastern European customs and philosophies – all of which is torture for a teenager with raging hormones who is obsessed with sex and longs to escape to a life other than the one she is existing in, of course.
To that end, Marina persuades her mother and relatives to send her to a small boarding school in Dorset, where she believes she will be free to do whatever she wants, experiment with boys, and reinvent her life. However, boarding school is not what Marina thought it would be and she realises she is not going to fit in with the rest of the crowd.
As the novel opens, Marina is battling with herself about returning to the school.
Marina cannot bring herself to admit to her mother, grandmother and aunts that the school, Combe Abbey, has turned out to be a big miscalculation on her part – not after they sacrificed so much to make it possible for her to attend the boarding school.
What Marina doesn’t realise is that Laura misses Marina greatly but, believing her daughter to be contented being away from home, does not dare to ask Marina if she is truly happy.
Thus begin the misunderstandings and miscommunications between generations that drive the novel along.
Though she can be a tad overbearing (and irritating at times), Rozsi is a brilliant comic creation. Mendelson early on lets her audience know that Rozsi is 80 years old, a major figure in the world of ladies’ underclothing, and not someone who is easily ignored. Hence Laura’s inability to voice out her frustrations to Rozsi over the years.
Idli and Zsuzsi, the two aunts, are supporting characters, as they more often than not hang behind Roszi, who has some of the funniest lines in the novel, particularly when it comes to explaining to Marina about Eastern European culture and philosophies.
While the scenes involving the older Hungarian relations are funny, Mendelson scores especially high when she describes Marina’s desperate attempts to fit in with the well-to-do girls at Combe Abbey. The results are hilarious, touching and all too real for anyone who has ever tried and failed to fit into the It crowd.
Although Almost English is not billed as a comic novel, it does come across as being a dark comedy thanks mainly to how Mendelson peppers the novel with cringeinducing misunderstandings and social confusion.
For instance, Marina’s weekends with her sort-of boyfriend Guy at his wealthy family’s house in the country is both funny (haven’t we all been in awkward situations?) and painfully realistic (haven’t we all been in awkward situations when we realise the waiters have better table knowledge and manners than you?): Marina, unable to distinguish between using the different types of cutlery on the table, feels like a lowly working class fool compared with posh Guy. At the same time, this part of the novel also drives home the point of how money does not guarantee a person a place in society, despite the school one goes to.
So where does Marina fit in? Is she completely English or is she part immigrant? Kudos to Mendelson for not providing an answer to this question and leaving it to readers to chew on.
The downside to Almost English is the way in which Mendelson concludes the novel: the ending feels anti-climactic and unfinished, with several loose ends left unsorted. But then again, it could also be argued that Mendelson is showing a slice of real life in her novel, and reality does not have proper starts or endings.
Apart from generally being a worthy read, Almost English is especially for anyone who has ever felt like a social outcast and longed to fit in.