Almost English – Charlotte Mendelson

This was a Booker nominee so you might expect it to be quite good but for most of the way I struggled to like any of the characters or to engage with how they dealt with their predicaments. A lot of books feature incompetent heroines but this one has two. Laura and her daughter, Marina, are both incapable of expressing what they want, being strategic about what they do, or saying what they want clearly to anyone else. The result is that the reader loves in a fog of indecision and bad decision making hoping that someone with an ounce of common sense will come and knock several heads together and get the plot moving.

The problem may or may not be the past which is rather clumsily unravelled in a silly ending involving Transylvanian aunts, Middle European relatives and long family feuds – plus an unlikely coincidence at the end. This may be the reason why the lead characters just mess everything up.

The mother seems confused about getting together with her ex-husband, clearly a bad lot, but since she fancies him and isn’t getting much of anything elsewhere she could have done this a hundred pages earlier than she did.

The daughter gets sent off to a silly private school where she cries a lot, everything smells rather odd, she is deflowered by the wrong person and she swaps Chemistry for History. Like her mother she spends a lot of time hating herself and her body. Her clothes never seem to fit, she says stupid things, regrets them and nothing seems quite right.

Smells predominate in this book often in twos or threes. Rooms and people smell variously of crumbled paper, smoky green apples, incense, bonfires, laundry and male hormones. The whole book whiffs of panic in a slightly intimate way as if written by a confused dog.

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