Thursday, August 29, 2013

Tony Messenger - 2013 Longlist - Almost English - Charlotte Mendelson

No, no, no, no, no, no and no. Sorry judges but seriously how did this novel make it onto the 2013 longlist? I would hope that there was some heated debate about including it, otherwise Robert Macfarlane (Cambridge AND Oxford), Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (Oxford), Natalie Haynes (The Independent and The Guardian), Martha Kearney (BBC) and Stuart Kelly (The Scotsman, The Guardian and The Times) have a bit of explaining to do. Such noble qualifications and history amongst you and I know reading 151 novels to cut it down to 13 would be a monumental task but surely you couldn’t have all fallen asleep when reading this?

Have I said this already? No, no, no, no, no, no and no. The Man Booker website review says: “In a tiny flat in West London, sixteen-year-old Marina lives with her emotionally-delicate mother, Laura, and three ancient Hungarian relatives. Imprisoned by her family’s crushing expectations and their fierce unEnglish pride, by their strange traditions and stranger foods, she knows she must escape. But the place she runs to makes her feel even more of an outsider.” That prĂ©cis actually reads better than the book itself.

Basically we have the ingredients for a Man Booker novel, living in a foreign land, ostracised from your homeland but not accepted in the new but what a mishmash of points to be made: teenage angst, puberty, sexuality, hidden family secrets, embarrassing family members, mysterious lecherous older men, public school mores, broken relationships, illness, affairs, lost fortunes, not fitting in at school, at home, no history, depression, drugs – I could go on and on and on and on.

The 2011 Longlist featured a novel “A Cupboard Full of Coats” by Yvette Edwards which featured Jinx of who I said “a more selfish, passionately self-absorbed character I don’t think I’ve ever met”, well this year I may have stumbled across another – Laura, the mother of Marina, who has more meltdowns, tears, selfish moments than her teenage lost insecure emotional daughter but only marginally so.

Kisses can grow. They spread over your skin like lichen while, inside, you change too. You can’t stop thinking: what did it mean?

Our novel switches throughout each chapter from Laura being our protagonist to Marina taking the stage (and I’m sure the chapter breaks are only there so you can have a rest, even though they are marked with dates they seem totally irrelevant). If that’s not frustrating enough both characters are equally unappealing. The “overbearing, secret” Hungarian in-laws are sketched characters with no depth (suppose they need to be as they’re so secretive) so you feel no passion at all for them and to simply start blurting out history at the end of the novel gave me no satisfaction as I couldn’t care less what had happened to these self-absorbed characters. How on earth have they lived together for 17 odd years and not discussed anything beyond undergarments and food?

There are not many novels that I utterly dislike on these literary longlists but this one surely qualifies. I’d made it 100 pages in and thought, “this has got to improve to make the longlist” once I was 200 pages down I wasn’t going to let it get the better of me, 300 pages in and I needed a break, finally the lot was conquered and I’ve wasted a week’s reading, a week I’ll never get back. Normally I’m a little less harsh on these novels (the last three that I’ve reviewed that I didn’t like were from first time authors so I went a little lighter), here there is no excuse. I don’t blame the writer, nor the publisher as I’m sure there is an audience for this type of novel out there (somewhere) but Man Booker judges hang your heads in shame, this is NOT adding to diversity, yes you may be “independent of fashion” but surely one other of the 138 novels that didn’t make the list would have been more worthy.

If this makes the shortlist I’ll donate $100 to the Indigenous Literary Foundation to help a local aborigine community in their pursuit of reading, let’s just hope their library doesn’t include this novel.

Cross posted at my blog.


  1. You really didn't like this did you! I started reading it but gave up well before the 100 page mark for the same reasons you mention. There was nothing about the characters that captured my interest at all. Decided it wasn't worth continuing for more of the same. How the judges could have included this but not JM Coetzee or Adichi is something that completely baffles me.

  2. Thanks Karen, good to see someone agrees. How on earth this is on a Booker list is beyond me, and so many other worthy works!!