Novels about growing up have two great themes: loss of innocence and the forging of identity. With this sparky, sharp-eyed and often painfully funny novel, her fourth, Charlotte Mendelson (winner of the Somerset Maugham and John Llewellyn Rhys prizes and now on the Man Booker longlist) explores both through the story of a girl and a family openly based on her own experience.
Marina Farkas is a small, round, dark-haired half-Hungarian girl of 16 (as the author was in 1988 when the novel is set). She lives with her fair, freckled, nervous English mother, Laura, in a small, hot flat in Bayswater; they have been taken in by three elderly émigrée sisters, Zzusi, Rozsi and Ildi, after Marina’s feckless, drunken father Peter, Zzusi’s son, vanished from their lives. He is presumed to be dead: Marina is adored, watched and controlled. They are short of money since the family lingerie business failed; Laura’s earnings help to keep them afloat.
She works for their GP, also married to a Hungarian, and carries on a secret and unsatisfactory affair with him. Both mother and daughter are in thrall to their Hungarian relations, and the novel is at its wry, observant best when presenting the infuriating but rather magical sisters, with their funny accents (‘darlink, vondairful’), their obsession with their native cuisine and their attempts to get Marina to wear bright, silky clothes (‘Vot a pity you don’t vont to look pretty’).
Marina loves them, but longs to get away and to be more like a proper English schoolgirl. She is clever, a bit of a swot, destined for Cambridge to read medicine and when she applies to do her A-levels in a boys’ public school in Dorset (Mendelson went to King’s School, Canterbury) she is accepted. Laura can hardly bear to let her go; the others are thrilled that she will mingle with the upper classes.
The novel opens soon after Marina realises, very quickly, that she has made a terrible mistake. She is miserably homesick; meanwhile her mother misses her so badly she thinks she is going mad. Neither can face telling the other what is going on.
Mendelson’s picture of the English public schoolboy (then, let’s hope, not now) is hilarious, if a touch heavy-handed. Girls are given crude nicknames and labelled either sluts or frigid; peasants, wops and faggots are derided. Even so, ardent by nature and longing for love (‘she has been waiting for someone to touch her breasts since she was 11’), Marina fantasises about a lanky choral scholar but allows Guy, a spotty junior boy, to fumble around with her and appoint her his girlfriend.
When Guy takes Marina to his grand, battered country house to meet his parents, her agonising sense of being an outsider only increases. Faced with tall, blonde girls called Emster and Immo, she feels swarthier and more foreign than ever (‘small and primitive, like someone in a Breughel’). However, she is kindly treated by Guy’s father, a glamorous historian and media don, who seems to understand her background and the way her mind works. Perhaps too predictably, her crush on him leads to trouble.
Mendelson is an admirer of Iris Murdoch, and as the plot thickens it becomes more and more murdochian and unlikely. Marina’s father, Peter, shows up, sober but with cancer; she keeps this secret and contemplates suicide. It turns out that Guy’s father is partly Hungarian (hence his special interest in Marina), that his family’s financial ruthlessness ruined the Farkas family and that hence his grand English life is founded on lies and betrayal.
The climax and unravelling of secrets takes place over the school’s Founders’ Day weekend, when Rozsi, Ssuzi and Ildi descend like the Furies. Marina is nearly raped by Guy’s father and finds herself running naked from the closing ceremony to her mother’s consoling arms.
In the end, though, for all its insights into the dangers and blessings of family life, the vagaries of the adolescent heart and the pleasures of Mendelson’s consistently excellent prose, this is an uneven and overwrought novel, with its uneasy blend of the brightly farcical and the emotionally dark.