Review: Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson (Man Booker Prize 2013 Longlist)


Almost English came to me by chance, and I was instantly taken with its cover (they are so, so important, aren’t they?).

It is not only striking but carefully designed, and modern too. ‘Modern’ – what I mean by that really is that it does not look like a lot of other book covers knocking about at the moment. So many of them seem to look the same, so it’s nice to see something different. It’s also understated – I for one hate covers where too much is going on and you don’t know where to look.

Our central character Marina is a schoolgirl, and I feel that in some ways this would be a great book for schoolgirls to read (of Marina’s age that is, i.e. 16/17) as it paints a vivid and realistic portrait of how utterly awful it is to be a 16 or 17 year old girl and how difficult it is to navigate between family, school, and boys.

Marina’s mother Laura is also rather central and gets her own sections of the book. She is, for lack of a better phrase, weak willed, and is also rather unhappy. Marina’s father left years and years ago, and the mother and daughter duo live with his mother and her two sisters – elderly Hungarians. The three of them are a wonderful trio, bringing both comedy and drama to the story and illustrating the vital importance not only of family ties but also family history and legacy. I loved all of them, and Mendelson’s knack for phonetically writing their accents is brilliant. Her own grandparents were Hungarian and you can actually feel the affection for them in this book.

Marina is unhappy living with this mish mash of family and begs to be sent to Combe Abbey, a traditional English boarding school, convinced that this will solve all her problems and make her feel less ‘foreign’ and ‘strange’. Of course it does not go to plan, and the results of Marina’s efforts to fit in and find happiness are simultaneously hilarious, excruciating, and rather sad.

Mendelson’s story and her characters are vivid and almost touchable. You are immersed in their world and when you close the book it lingers around you. Almost English entertained and moved me, and made me miss hugs from my also foreign grandma.

Visit Charlotte Mendelson’s website to hear her discussing Almost English on Foyles radio with Fiction Uncovered, and in a little video made with her publishers. Luckily she seems to be absolutely lovely.


Published by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, on 15th August 2013. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Almost English is on the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Read more here.

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