Book review: Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

The old women wait, in Hungarian, for Laura to knock.” The delight in that sentence, a little way into Charlotte Mendelson’s wonderfully tortured Man Booker longlisted drama of secrets and longings, is that none of the three pensioners being described is saying anything.

Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

Mantle, 288pp, £16.99

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The mutterings are all in the imagination of Laura, non-Hungarian-speaking abandoned wife and mother to Marina, whose teenage bedroom she is steeling herself to enter. In a novel packed with sly observation and stealthy wit, this is just one moment: Almost English is a finely executed comedy of manners, with a dark side.

We’re in a two-and-a-half bedroom basement flat in Bayswater, home to five people. First, there are the three sisters: 80-year-old Rozsi, once something big in the women’s underwear business; her head-turning younger sibling Zsuzsi, in her seventies still beset with suitors; and their elder sister Ildi, who seems positively conventional compared with the other two. Marina, Rozsi’s grand-daughter, is home for Christmas from the posh boarding school she’s persuaded the family to let her attend for her sixth form (how do they find the money?); and caught in the middle there’s the unfortunate Laura, Marina’s Midlands-born mother, who for the past 13 years has been camping on the sofa in the living room and storing her clothes in the sideboard. Laura’s husband, Rozsi’s wayward son Peter, hasn’t been heard of since the postcard he sent just days after disappearing. His name is never spoken.

Marina and Laura, mother and daughter, spend their time talking – to themselves, not to each other. Their interior monologues, like their stories, weave in and out of the novel as each lurches from mini-crisis to mini-crisis. Marina would have to admit she’s made a mistake – Combe Abbey, the Dorset boys’ public school that now takes girls in the Sixth, is nothing like the midnight-feasting wheeze she’d imagined it to be. It’s snobby and excluding; she doesn’t fit in, and she’s homesick for her old existence in that cramped London flat. (She’d also have to reveal her secret longings for music scholar Simon Flowers.)

As for Laura, she’d have to confess to the abject misery of an empty nest. Then perhaps she’d need to own her covert and not very satisfactory affair with her married boss, Dr Alistair Sudgeon, whose secretary she is. It’s all such a horrible cliché. The fact that she has access to the key to Alistair’s drugs cupboard and fantasises about using it is something else she can reveal to no-one. She wonders what on earth she did to get into such a mess.

Mendelson has produced three critically acclaimed novels already, including the Orange Prize-shortlisted When We Were Bad. Here again, she masterminds events with wit and ingenuity, shifting moods from darkness to light in an instant, and delivering some glorious moments of uproarious comedy. In Marina and Laura’s troubled relationship she finds a powerful source of dramatic tension; but it’s not the only one. Plot twists abound. On the lighter side, Dr Sudgeon’s ghastly wife Mitzi starts making breathy, silent phone calls to the flat; and then Laura learns of Peter’s whereabouts and a whole new episode of soul-searching begins. Marina, meanwhile, unable to seduce the godlike music scholar, swallows her pride and succumbs to the advances of a precocious Fifth-former, whose famous father becomes captivated by her innocence.

Tensions build, a real crisis looms, and family history is revealed; and in a scene of outrageous farce, Marina and Laura rediscover their bond, the latter learning to take control of her life again.

So the novel ends in optimism. But Almost English isn’t blinkered, or naïve. One of its charms is its apparent simplicity, masquerading as something light; just a good read. Don’t be fooled. Call it Jane Austen for the 21st century – a novel on a small scale, full of private preoccupations and a mischievously overblown supporting cast; a novel that nevertheless says something profound about the human condition.

• Charlotte Mendelson is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on Saturday 17 August