Longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, Almost English presents the tension and identity crises that occur within a blended, multicultural family. While 16 year-old Marina might identify as English on paper, her family life and heritage is much more complicated. Marina’s mother, Laura, married a Hungarian man named Peter, but his binge drinking and general lack of enthusiasm for family life left Marina fatherless for the majority of her upbringing. And the life of a single mother hasn’t been easy for Laura, either, especially considering that they are still very closely tied to Peter’s family. Marina and Laura have lived with Peter’s mother and her two sisters in a tiny London apartment since Peter’s abandonment, which has propelled them into a sort of cultural limbo.
Marina is technically half-Hungarian, but her exposure to Hungarian culture has been both limited and overwhelming. Her grandmother and great-aunts still barely speak English, even though they have lived in London for the majority of their lives. They hover around Marina, their little “Dar-link,” yet Marina has never fully identified with her heritage. This is partly due to the fact that her relatives are incredibly secretive about their past, so she knows very little of her family’s history. At the same time, Laura is enrolled in Combe Abbey, a traditional English boarding school, where pedigree is everything. As teen angst and hormones set in, Marina realizes that she may never find a sense of belonging in either Hungarian or English culture.
Things are further complicated when Marina accidentally acquires a boyfriend, Guy Viney. While Marina adores Guy’s family for their English-ness, she soon finds that Guy’s family history is also complicated, and may have even intersected her own family’s past. As her relationship with the Viney family grows more and more troubled, Laura is secretly dealing with a few complications of her own – namely the return of her long-lost husband.
It’s all a very fascinating concept and has the potential to be a witty and poignant novel, but the story falls short in various aspects. While the characters are certainly unique, none of them seem to occupy the role of protagonist. Instead, we are presented with a jumbled mess of internal and external dialogs that often lead to nowhere. No one in Almost English seems to be sure of themselves about anything, which makes for a rather laborious read. The dialog is fragmented and the plot sometimes feels inorganic, so I’m not quite sure what makes this novel so appealing to the Man Booker judges. Most of the book can be summed up in the following sentiment:
Adult life requires the capacity either to endure, or to leap, ask the difficult questions, face certain pain. Laura can do neither. So she hesitates.
To me, the entire novel feels like one long hesitation. There’s a great deal of potential here, but like Laura (and Marina), Charlotte Mendelson’s writing feels unsure of itself. While this aspect of uncertain identity is present and well-developed, the characters never seem to learn how to properly navigate their difficulties, and for me, this ultimately makes for a disappointing read.
This review was simultaneously published on Typographical Era