Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

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Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Marina tries to survive at a traditional boarding school with everything against her. Insightful, exquisite observation and a delightful humour.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Mantle
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1447219972

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In the late nineteen eighties sixteen year old Marina is a border at Combe school, destined - as she and all about her know - for Cambridge and the medical profession. After her first term she's wonders if she's made a mistake as it's definitely not like it was at Ealing Girls. There, a girl whose mother is emotionally fragile doesn't stand out, even if the mother gets to sleep on the sofa in her in-laws' flat because their son - her husband - upped and left her and their daughter. You would still fit in even if the family you're living with is Hungarian and hasn't entirely left the ways of the old country behind. At Combe there's too much about Marina that she could be mocked for - or could get her a cruel nickname. Marina simply doesn't fit in, but the family have sacrificed everything so that she can go there.

Then, of course, there are boys. Combe takes girls in the sixth form - but Marina isn't used to boys at all. There's a crush on one of them but it's Guy Viney in the Fivers who takes a shine to Marina. He's younger than her and in a year below, but that seems to be all she feels that she deserves. What she didn't know was that his father is a famous historian - and he seems prepared to mentor Marina.

Charlotte Mendelson is the perfect observer: she captures in a few words the essence of a person or of a relationship and her depiction of the three sisters, Rozsi, Zsuzsi and Ildi is exquisite. They're embarrassing but you can't help but like them. They're well meaning, adore Marina and are a little loud and not really controllable as Marina finds out when they come to see her at Combe. There's no mistaking their background - everything is von-darefool or tair-ible - and there are lots more gems in the glossary and pronunciation at the back of the book.

The balance between Marina and her mother, Laura is elegant. There's no animosity between them but somehow neither can quite manage to tell the other what they're thinking , how they're feeling. Marina is desperately homesick and Laura is heartsick for her child - but neither can say. Both think that the other is doing well without them - which, of course, makes matters worse. And Laura can't tell anyone about the last man she expected to come back into her life, despite knowing that she should.

But what Mendelson does best is 'the cringe'. You'll cringe for Marina as displays her social ineptitude seemingly at every available opportunity and it's a skillful author who manages to avoid this deteriorating into comic farce. The humour is subtle - you'll smile rather than laugh out loud - but there's an ending which had me cheering. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Almost English is longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker prize. We can also recommend The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan.

Booklists.jpg Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson is in the Man Booker Prize 2013.

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Buy Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson at


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