Man Booker 2013 – Hungarian Rhapsody

Charlotte Mendelson’s new novel Almost English is the sort of fictional family memoir that is a joy to read.

Laura and Marina (mother and daughter) live with a host of Hungarian great-aunts and a grandmother in a flat in Bayswater. These elderly relatives are alternately inquisitive, demanding, irritating and adorable and foreign. Their foreign-ness seems at times to get more extreme and Marina finds the constant scrutiny both tiresome and trying though at the same time she also benefits from their generosity; she is after all at a private school in Dorset somehow being paid for by these same relatives. The oldies are determined that she will go to Cambridge to study ‘something useful’ and become a doctor; this project seems likely to be de-railed when she meets, and is seduced by, the attractive Alexander Viney, father of one of the other pupils in the school. However, Alexander has a hidden history that appears to involve the great-aunts and to reduce them all to tears, so all mention of him must be suppressed or hidden. What do do then? Marina has changed courses, which she is beginning to recognise is a mistake. As for Laura, she too is suffering from a surfeit of entanglements: she has one married lover and one errant husband too many and in the bewildering mess she is making of her own life, she is also mismanaging her relationship with Marina. Suffering both guilt and longing while her daughter is away at school, when they are together she treads unwarily into places she would be better to avoid and avoids expressing the things that matter, and worse too, Marina yearns for those very expressions of longing, but each time both miss the moments when unburdening might become bearable.

The whole book is full of poignant scenes like this one: Laura has taken Marina back to school and during the journey both of them have signally failed to say what they were thinking, Laura has left therefore without settling her in.

And there they are already back in West Street. Her mother says, ‘Shall I settle you in?’
‘No, no need,’ says Marina from inside her block of ice. Anyway, Heidi is watching, like a sperm whale trawling for plankton. The place is full of other people’s families: Liza Church’s mother in caramel leather, Ali’s pretty twin sisters, heading like sacrificial lambkins for Coombe next year. So her mother leaves; she doesn’t seem to care one bit that Marina is suffering. Marina starts to unpack her clean nightie and tangerines and embarrassing tub of korozott and new contact lenses and bag of ten pences and, by the time she has changed her mind and run after her mother, it is too late and she has to stand there, watching her shrink to the size of her hand, then her thumb, then her fingernail, striding further and further away.

How painful that is to read and yet how brilliantly evoked, the sense of longing despair that so often jinxes mother/daughter relationships. Too close and at the same time far too far away.

Everything about this compelling book is thus marvellously tangled, tortured and finally resolved. My money is on this for the short list at the very least.

20130806-143714.jpgHome is a foreign country: they do things differently there…
thus it is as Tolstoy said: “all happy families resemble on another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. The members of the Farkas/Karolyi family are neither completely happy nor utterly unhappy, they are all of those things some of the time and with them, the reader is carried along, through muddle and half-revelation to the startling conclusion.

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