I first heard of Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson- as I’ve been doing of lately of every book – via Twitter. Her publicist, Camilla Elworthy kindly offered to send me an advanced review copy as soon as I got all excited about the immigration theme in the book. And finally, after looking for the perfect moment to read it, I finished it last week among the chaos of an all-afternoon-and-evening course.
Almost English tells the story of Marina and her mother, Laura, in 1988 London. It would be your regular come-of-age novel if it wasn’t because of Marina’s origins: her father’s line comes from Hungarian migrants. She and her mother live with Marina’s grandmother and all her grand-aunts with strong Hungarian accents and a strict silence policy regarding WWII and the reasons they migrated from Hungary. Little is known about their past. And talking about their present is not different either: the whole family struggles economically after Marina decides to enter a private school (known as “public schools” in the UK). But she’s not as happy as she thought she’d be…
As I already mentioned on Twitter, I have mixed feelings about Almost English. I did not like it, in fact, I have some harsh criticism to do, but the prose was addictive. I read this book in a few sittings, I really wanted to be by their side and see how Marina and her mother dealt with everything. Also, the fact that it is divided into chapters and those chapters focus both on Marina and Laura and change perspectives, makes a very easy reading.
Now, time for some harsh criticism. Almost English is a book about women, written by a woman. The main character is no doubt Marina, followed very close by her mother, Laura. But, for a book written by a woman, focused on women and with a clearly young female target audience, there are some covert ideas that horrified me. For example, Marina who is seventeen, is constantly struggling with her body which is usually described in negative terms and, due to her physical features as “foreign” meaning she does not fit the “English stereotype” which is a beautiful, blue-eyed and blonde girl. First of all, I refuse to believe there are no dark-haired, beautiful and typically English girls. This is no place to discuss, but Kate Middleton and her much-envied dark hair comes to mind. As a consequence, Marina does not belong, neither culturally neither physically and she is in constant need of validation: a male validation. In the whole novel, there is not a single positive view of a female body since the same happens with Laura. Although I do recognize some of the struggle, I believe it is very much exaggerated and more than helping to a coming-of-age female audience, it would do more harm than anything.
Regarding female-male dynamics, Almost English also has some serious problems: Marina and Laura enter relationships where they only feel guilty. There is a constant association of sex with a feeling of guilt and dirt, something either Marina or Laura should have not entered into. As if sex was something not meant for them, as women, something they do not deserve. Actually, Marina feels she is betraying her family all throughout the novel, but this feeling peaks as she enters a relationship and lies to her family about it – as many teenagers do – and ends up holding herself responsible if anything bad happens to her family. It would be her fault if they died because it would be come directly from her lying. As a consequence, she enters into an obsessive, delusional and irrational behaviour even more complex than that in The Bell Jar.
But the book has some really good points too. I was really interesting on how it was to grow up with a foreign family, being yourself English but not feeling as such. It is one of the most common problems associated to descendants of migrants: they do not belong to their family’s culture neither do they feel they belong to the country they were actually born in. This happens to Marina all the time: she’s not recognized as English, she does not feel English, yet at home she’s foreign too. She does not “speak with an accent” as her grandmother and grand-aunts do. Marina is in what is called an inbetweeness: she is neither Hungarian nor English and she feels the need to belong, but she struggles to find her place. This situation presents a lot of psychological and identity problems and they’re perfectly portrayed in Almost English, beginning with the title.
So, would I recommend Almost English? I’d do if you want to focus on the migrant part. But regarding women in literature and how they are portrayed, I think this book presents a very poor image: women are helpless, they’re usually crying, desperate and subjected. They’re in a constant search for male validation and have a negative view of their own bodies and their sexuality. Of course, there are people like this out there and every author is free to write about it, but I got angry – really angry actually – reading this excerpts. Not my kind of book in that sense.