Almost English – Charlotte Mendelson

‘Men leave. Children leave. All that is left is death.’

Almost English tells the stories of sixteen-year-old Marina, her mother Laura and, her grandmother (Laura’s mother-in-law) Rozsi. All three live in a flat in Westminster Court, Bayswater, along with Rozsi’s sisters, ‘virginial Ildi and beautiful Zsuzsi’.

If you happened to come across them taking their cold constitutionals in Hyde Park this afternoon, they would have seemed perfectly normal elderly Londoners, looking forward to a quiet night in with a cup of tea and a chop and the Radio Times.

At least that is how they think they seem.

But come a little closer. ‘Dar-link’ is their usual form of address.

The ‘three old women’ are Hungarian. Laura and Marina moved in with Rozsi when Peter, Laura’s husband, disappeared. The other two women soon followed.

Laura sleeps on the sofa, her clothes in the sideboard, leaving her with no privacy as the three older women wander past to use the bathroom. It’s quite incredible that she’s managed to keep her lover a secret from them, although it’s a secret she needs to keep as she’s having an affair with her employer, Dr Alistair Sudgeon.

Laura’s biggest concern though is Marina. Marina’s recently started attending Combe Abbey, a boarding school in Devon, an event which has left Laura feeling raw:

Can it be normal to cry in department store toilets, at advertising hoardings or thoughts of distant famine?…without Marina, a layer of resistance has started to peel away.

Did it happen in the run-up to Marina’s going, or on the day she left? In either case, it is Laura’s own fault; she should have stopped her. It was a test of motherhood, which she failed.

Marina, meanwhile, is having a miserable time. She has a crush on a boy who doesn’t know she exists; the girls she shares accommodation with are vile, and no one’s given her a nickname, which suggests that no one’s that interested in her – the ultimate insult for a teenager. Worse than all of this though is her opinion of her mother:

There was a question buried in the middle, like an aniseed ball: did her mother know her, love her, enough to refuse to be parted from her child? Apparently not. She just let it happen, flicking through prospectuses, trailing around with Marina and the great-aunts at open days, and did not once protest.

Mother and daughter in a prime example of failure to communicate, believing they’re doing what the other wants. Add to this the secrets they’re both keeping – there’s a whopper in there – and you’ve got a cracking story.

In Almost English, Mendelson explores the mother/daughter relationship during a period that proves difficult for most – the late teens. It’s an astute portrayal of the desires parents have for their children, what teenagers really want from their parents and the mismatch between the two.

Beside this, the setting of Combe Abbey allows Mendelson to lampoon the bombast of the English upper class, for starters, and then expose the thinly veiled hideousness behind it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel; its tone is fresh and often playful, using humour to highlight ridiculous and inconsistent behaviour and the ending’s an absolute joy.

The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri

Because I follow a lot of bookish people on Twitter, I often see conversations about books that people have ‘given up’ on. What they mean by this is they’ve tried the book in question and decided that it’s not for them. The number of pages usually cited as being an appropriate number upon which to make a decision is fifty. I mention this because I have commented in reply to this idea that I don’t give up on books. I don’t say this in an attempt at virtuousness, I sometimes think that it’s a fault on my part – what if I’m missing out on something? – is the question in my head and more often, it’s the ending of a novel that I find disappointing, not the opening.

The other reason I open my review of The Lowland with this thought is that I almost did give up on it. I began reading it last October as I was shadowing the Man Booker Prize shortlist with some of my students. The week I’d scheduled it for was a busy one and all of us arrived at the meeting not having finished reading it. I was on p87 and up to this point had found it too episodic; just as I was becoming interested in the events of the section I was reading, the novel moved on. I found it disjointed and the mostly simple and compound sentences that made up the short paragraphs stilted. I put it down and moved on to the next book, not giving up on it but not considering a time I would return to it either, despite people whose opinions I trust (including guest blogger Jacqui) insisting it was a very good novel.

And then The Lowland was longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize and as I shadow the prize, attempting to read all the eligible books, I knew I had to return to it. I picked it off the shelf on Thursday evening. By Saturday lunchtime, I’d finished it and it was undoubtedly the best book I’ve read so far this year.

The Lowland is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan who live in Calcutta with their parents. When the novel begins, they are thirteen and eleven-years-old respectively. But [Subhash] had no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. There, in the second chapter of the novel is the Tolly Club, the private members’ club where the wealthy of Calcutta go to play tennis and golf, to ride or swim, to drink tea or cocktails. The boys have never seen inside the club due to the wall that was raised to prevent spectators, a wall that they’ve decided to scale. They visit regularly until the evening they are caught by a policeman and thrashed. It would take several days for the welts to go down.

Personality wise the boys are opposites; Udayan is brave and unrestrained, while Subhash tries to ‘minimize his existance’. However:

In spite of their differences one was perpetually confused with the other, so that when either name was called both were conditioned to answer. And sometimes it was difficult to know who had answered, given that their voices were nearly indistinguishable. Sitting over the chessboard they were mirror images: one leg bent, the other splayed out, chins propped on their knees.

But by their late teens, the differences between the boys are becoming more pronounced and politics is the cause.

In 1967, a peasant revolt occurred in Naxalbari, in the Darjeeling District. Landowners illegally evicted villagers from land they’d cultivated. The peasants burned deeds and records and occupied land while carrying red flags and shouting ‘Long live Mao Tse-Tung’.

Subhash and Udayan listen to news of the events on the radio. When the West Bengal cabinet capture and kill the rebels, they have differing reactions:

Sounds like it’s over in any case, Subhash said.
Udayan paused before leaving. This could only be the beginning, he said.
The beginning of what?
Something bigger. Something else.

It’s the beginning of Udayan’s involvement in the Naxalbari movement and the two brothers growing apart. Eventually, Subhash leaves to study for a PhD in America. While Subhash is away, Udayan marries a woman – Gauri – who is also involved in the movement and then he is killed. Subhash returns to Calcutta and takes Gauri, pregnant with Udayan’s child, as his wife. Subhash goes back to America, believing they can begin a new life together.

The majority of the novel focuses on the aftermath of Udayan’s death, the consequences of which reverberate for decades. The narrative moves between Subhash and his parents but also focuses on Gauri and it is her story which interested me the most. It’s the tale of an immigrant trapped in a country not her own, in a marriage not her own, with a child she never planned to have. The claustrophobia she experiences is skilfully conveyed through Lahiri’s precisely chosen lexis. Gauri’s plight and the choices she makes are deeply affecting.

The Lowland spans almost an entire lifetime, showing the trajectories that life can take, some chosen, others forced upon the characters. Its scope feels simultaneously broad and narrow – it plays out across three continents while focused on one small family and considers themes both universal and personal – politics, women’s rights, education, marriage.

Lahiri’s writing feels similar; it is precise while conveying clear emotions and beliefs in a few, often simple, words. For example, when Gauri marries Subhash:

But even as she was going through with it she knew that it was useless, just as it was useless to save a single earring when the other half of the pair was lost.

Or when Subhash and Gauri attend at a dinner party at the house of a colleague of Subhash:

The women seemed friendly. Who where they?
I don’t remember the names, she said.

Lahiri layers her narrative, returning to events and ideas at intervals which allow events and ideas to illuminated bit by bit. Her words deserve to be savoured.

A few years ago, a university tutor told me that the idea of not being able to get into a book was nonsense; some books have a different rhythm and pace to you and you need to learn to breathe with them, to set your pace to theirs. I’m glad I managed to adjust my pace to that of Lahiri’s; The Lowland is a masterpiece.

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

In the midst of all the column inches generated by Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize win this week, there were two burning questions on my Twitter timeline: one, should I be bothered to read something 832 pages long? Two, is it all structure and no story. In short, the answers are yes and no.

The Luminaries opens with the arrival of Walter Moody in Hokitika, a gold mining town in New Zealand. It is the time of the gold rush when every man arrives believing he will make his fortune. Moody has had a dreadful crossing on a barque named Godspeed:

…Moody had witnessed an event so extraordinary and affecting that it called all other realities into doubt. The scene was still with him – as if a door had chinked open, in the corner of his mind, to show a band of graying light, and he could not know wish the darkness back again. It was costing him a great deal of effort to keep that door from opening further.

Having taken a room at The Crown Hotel, Moody has positioned himself in the smoking room in an attempt to calm himself. However…

Moody’s entrance had been something of a surprise to the twelve assembled men, who had taken considerable precautions to ensure that they would not be disturbed.

The twelve men assembled in that room are residents of Hokitika, there to discuss the apparent attempted suicide of Anna Wetherell, the local prostitute. The men assembled hold prominent positions in the town: banker, newspaperman, hotelier, goldfields magnate, chemist, shipping agent, justice’s clerk, hatter, chaplain, commission merchant, greenstone hunter and goldsmith. Each knows a different piece of information that they hope will help them to piece together the reasons as to what led Anna Wetherell to attempt suicide; where Emery Staines, prospector, has disappeared to; why and how Crosbie Wells, hermit, died, and what part Francis Carver, captain of Godspeed, has played in all of this.

During the first half of the novel, we sit in the smoking room alongside Walter Moody and learn about him as well as the rest of the cast. There is a lot of information to take in and, of course, we cannot expect all these men to be telling the whole truth. When we reach the novel’s midpoint, we are three weeks on; things begin to unravel and mysteries and crimes are solved.

I worried during my reading of the first half of the novel that there was too much information to hold in my head while reading – I found myself wishing I’d made much more detailed notes as to who did and said what. However, in the second half of the book, information came just as quickly but as it was looking at what we already knew and dissecting it, I realised my earlier concerns were unfounded. What also helped enormously was being aware of Catton’s interest in ‘box set TV’ and how she wanted to use the idea of the long character arch. This element worked very well and provided a sense of accomplishment at the end of the novel. I felt bereft knowing I’d no longer be spending time with these characters.

As for the structure in terms of the astrological elements of the book – if no one had mentioned them, I probably would have had very little awareness of them at all. Each section starts with the astrological chart for that period of time and includes the influences on the twelve male characters present in the smoking room in the first half of the novel. Catton says these are accurate for the time and that she used them to determine the character’s behaviour. Does it make the story read as though the author has a firm hand on events? No. It reads like a cracking good crime novel.

What is interesting about the structure though is the way it feeds into a theme of the novel: is our fate predetermined or does coincidence lead us along paths we otherwise would never have taken?

The Luminaries is a bold book. It demands we give it our sustained attention and pays us for it with a narrative drive so compelling I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough in the second half of the novel. I only hope that any requests for film rights are given short shrift and instead I’ll be spending time with the box set, watching the events unfold again.


Thanks to Little, Brown and Company US for the review copy.