Funny side of fit­ting in

If you’ve ever felt like a so­cial out­cast and longed to fit in, this book is for you.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - Re­view by SHARIL DEWA star2@thes­tar.com.my

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.

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