“Ah, it’s the time of your life!” they cry. “Cherish every moment, I wish I could relive it again.”
In my experience, this phrase is reserved for the very worst times in your life. The classic is school; how adults prod and chirp about the sheer joy of it. Adults, you are out of your minds. There is no despair like the despair of the teenager. There is no self-loathing so bottomless, no social isolation so devastating, no trivial incident so momentous to you as that of the 13 year old. I remember a shaft of illumination at the age of 14 or so when I realised that there was no point planning to move school – “It’ll be this bad EVERYWHERE.” Reader, it was. At least until you reach the dizzy heights of sixth form when your friendship groups stop radically changing on a fortnightly basis, you can eat unlimited buttered toast, and everyone squeezes into a tiny room to watch Home and Away twice a day (you got more out of it on the second viewing.) Come sixth form, splattered in paint and in tears from laughing at Catch-22 with my English teacher (swot), it was dandy. But the years from 13-15 have a special sort of blackness.
Yet, just as people say women block out the memory of childbirth, so does the adult block out the memories of school. It becomes a rosy melee of long holidays and sports/art lessons (depending on your strengths.) And before you know it, you’re prodding some benighted 14-year old lecturing them about how they should make the most of this joyous period.
In Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, the despair of teenagerhood is captured sharply. Marina’s melodramatic self-absorption is at once ludicrous and strikingly accurate. But just as distance makes our most agonised teenage moments hilarious in retrospect, Marina’s tortured psyche is really, really funny and unfailingly personal. The situation-comedy of Marina entering the netherworld of the English public school system and the English upper class home is joyful, her insecure, alien point of a view a delight.
Some reviews have found it a weakness that Marina’s mother has a mindset quite as teenage as that of her daughter. Certainly the reader has less sympathy for Laura’s paralysis and suicidal fantasises than Marina’s. But I found it an interesting parallel , showing how what is endearing in a child is harmful and maddening in an adult – but simultaneously how it’s family, more than age, that really shapes who you are. The alternating structure between Marina and Laura provides moments of both similarity and difference which are striking.
However, the greatest strength of the novel is the tender, acute and achingly funny portrayal of the elderly Hungarian/Czech/Russian relatives. Mendelson’s keen ear for dialogue captures the characteristic speech patterns: “Dar-link…Vot-apity you don’t vant to look pretty,” and “Tair-ible.” A little extract:
“Marinaka dar-link,” says Mrs Dobos. “You still do not tell me about Combe-Abbey. You are liking it, as I say you will. You are happy there. I can tell: you eat well. Your bust grows.”
“I – “
“Of course you are happy. It is von-darefool school. Von-darefoolopportoonity.”
This language, and warm description, summons these exotic, arthritic creative into vivid life so that you feel that you, the reader, has also been living in this semi-Bayswater flat with these lovable, ridiculous, yet admirable old ladies.
Almost English isn’t brilliant, and at times it’s a bit too despairing. But it’s well worth a read for its comedic depiction of teenagerhood and the families involved.
(On the Booker prize odds – I don’t think this is a likely winner either. Onwards!)