I don’t know whether anyone else gets this, but sometimes I feel like I really love a book, but for all the wrong reasons. I blame English lessons in school. In their modernist way, they taught us that there was only one way to read, understand or appreciate a book: as the author intended. Even having studied, and learned to value, postmodernism, I found it hard to counteract the ‘lesson’ that there is a right or wrong reason to engage with a book. It’s a funny thing, education.
Almost English, by Charlotte Mendelson is a wonderful example of a book I loved for all the wrong reasons. The protagonist is a complex teenager, with issues including a tendency toward self-flagellation. Her parents have a deeply confused relationship, which plays out through the course of the novel. This all happens while she goes to Boarding School, forming attachments to a seemingly suitable boy and his seemingly suitable family. The plot twists towards the end of the novel. This is an interesting story, beautifully written about a teenager trying to fit in. These things, I would have recognised and liked about the novel, in any case.
However, what made me love the novel, was the protaganist’s relationship with her Hungarian Grandmother and Great Aunts, who she lives with. This is where the Postmodern comes in. Because, you see, I grew up with an Eastern European Grandmother, and associated friends, neighbours and hangers on. And, just like the protagonist, it took me a long time to understand that some of the characters and characteristics I had grown up surrounded by were not normal (although I was never ashamed of them, as she is, and probably would have nothing in common with her, were we to ‘meet’, face to face).
For me, much of the wonder of this book, particularly the opening and much of the first half, was how recognisable it was to me.
These Hungarians, who address everyone as ‘dar-link’ and worry they haven’t made enough sesame beigels, and who have more dramatic eyebrows, hairsweeps and invasive questions than their neighbours… they were part of my childhood too. It is the quotes about them, and their relationship with the teenage protagonist, that I found myself underlining.
“They seem both more formal and more exuberant than you might expect, as if you had wandered into a theatre dressing room of the 1950s, not a cramped west London basement flat.”
“Their bags contain poppy-seed pastries as long as your forearm; velvet-packaged pralines, smuggled by fur-wrapped pensioners on the overnight from Berne. Their perfume smells like the air in a hundred department stores.”
“A distorted English, full of dactyls which dust familiar words – ‘Pee-codilly’ or ‘vosh-ingmachine’… with snow and fir and darkness.”
“The air stinks of tuberose, caraway and garlic: the universal scent of Eastern European hospitality.”
Just as the drama of the novel really gets under way, so these descriptors end. So I am sure that, for most people, the remainder of the book will hold more appeal. I am sure I have it wrong. But for me, it is the first 20%, where I can close my eyes, and feel my cheeks pinched, smell the face powder mixed with frying onions and listen for the mispronounced ‘ths’ all around me, that make this a book I truly love.