Author portrait by Kate Eshelby

When I arrive at the offices of Charlotte Mendelson’s publisher Pan Macmillan she is already there and is quite hard to miss, not least because she is wearing flat pointed shoes that are the exact shade of a yellow highlighter pen. People are clearly fond of her here and she’s so keen to chat to everyone that her publicist has to wrest her away so that I can interview her.

Her fourth and most recent novel Almost English was longlisted for this year’s Booker. Her first novel Love in Idleness won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award, and she has also been shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

In Almost English, Marina Farkas is an awkward sixteen-year-old girl whose father absconded some years ago. Since then she has lived with her mother alongside her father’s elderly Eastern European relatives in west London, or she did live there until she decided she wanted to go to boarding school in Dorset. This move seems to have been something of a disaster, not least because of the impact it has on her incipient sexuality. Mendelson says, “One of the seeds of the whole book was that I really wanted to write about that very dangerous stage that practically every woman I know has been through where sexuality and the potential for sex meet, finally. Every woman I know has been in situations where stuff has happened that they haven’t wanted and it’s because it was kind of in the murky area between desire and consent and sort of mental compulsion. I think it’s a really interesting stage and so I exactly wanted to write about how she is in this difficult situation of sort of desire which then stops, but then you’re in the situation and what do you then do?

Every woman I know has been in situations where stuff has happened that they haven’t wanted in the murky area between desire and consent and mental compulsion.”

“I think one of the things about being a girl, about girlhood, you don’t know how any of it works. You don’t know how kissing leads to sex. You don’t know how expressing desire doesn’t then mean you have to say, okay, yes to anything. You have no idea. You don’t get that in sex education, you get stamens in sex education! She hasn’t got a clue what to do. The fact that every other girl she knows will have probably been in that situation doesn’t help her at all because she’s the one in the car in the dark.”

Whilst Almost English is definitely about sex, it is also about class and race. Mendelson says “I wanted to write a book about how it’s possible to be sort of intelligent and not financially desperate and sort of intellectually comfortable and yet feel like a dreg when you’re in the house of you know, poshingtons with newspaper blocking up the cracks in the windows. It’s such a kind of bizarre thing.

“There is thankfully more and more multi-ethnic fiction coming up out of Britain but I don’t think there’s very much fiction about people who are like Marina and her family as in they’re white so they kind of pass as English until they open their mouths. Marina’s not that foreign but she’s a bit foreign. And there’s an awful lot of people in England with grandparents who are immigrants who look like they could be Anglo-Saxon but actually they don’t feel like that at all.”

It seems natural to ask if that’s something she has experienced. “Yes, someone once said to me that I always used to refer to myself as foreign and they thought it was a bit of a pose and then they met my grandmother! I don’t feel English. I also don’t feel anything else but I don’t feel exactly English. I think I’ve got the insecurity of the immigrant even though I’m two generations away, so I really identified with that and that feeling that there’s a right way to dress, be, choose, like different things, and somehow I don’t know about it because I’m bit of a scruffy foreigner.”

Did the book arise from that? “No, it was basically because I loved my grandparents and I missed them so it was a way to write about them, but then it gradually evolved… I realised I wanted to write specifically about the experience of being the grandchild of immigrants and not knowing things and sort of guessing them. But also it was a way of writing about my grandparents’ accents and their food and their clothes and their friends and their flat. All of that was to some extent quite conscious, it was a way to memorialise them.”

She has done this quite brilliantly; for example, she writes that Marina’s relatives pronounce familiar words with a hint of “snow and fir and darkness.” I ask her if she thought of herself as English when she was growing up.

It’s a kind of weird privilege for my non-Englishness to not be visible. If my ancestors were African, I’d probably feel I had to deal with it a lot more.”

“No, we felt grotesquely foreign! We thought of ourselves as Hungarian but it wasn’t actually true because it turned out that my grandparents weren’t exactly Hungarian, they just spoke Hungarian. And that’s another thing I understood much more as I was writing the book but that I’m still incredibly perplexed by, just the kind of complexity of their nationality but also, what that means and what am I? I can’t even say I’m half-Hungarian, I’m almost English. I couldn’t exactly tweet my nationality. It’s more of a kind of novella.”

She asks me about my own background and, laughing, we compare notes on how people always try and guess our parentage and always get it wrong.

“It’s a kind of weird, murky privilege for my non-Englishness to not be visible. If I were mixed race but my ancestors were not Eastern European but African, I’d probably feel I had to deal with it a lot more. I probably wouldn’t have called my book Almost English. But I feel like I have to be out and be proud about the fact that I’m not as English as I look or sound. I’m trying to reclaim it a bit. I don’t know about you but I feel having grown up very close to people with funny accents and funny food, I think it’s quite hard to feel like an English person.”

I return to an idea that I’d broached earlier, that the quieter characters in her novels often seem to resist rebelling in a way the reader might expect or want them to. I can see that Mendelson isn’t buying it, though, so I ask, “Is this just something I’m fixated with?”

“I think it is.”

She pauses while I laugh but then says, “It’s interesting though. But that’s just me trying to be a good novelist. Of course you can’t have the obvious things happen. Or maybe it’s being literary. Although you’re right actually, you have identified something. I guess I do try and write about people who are externally compliant and conscientious and well behaved, but there’s a kind of rebellion brewing – it all comes out in a particular way. It’s because I’m an elder child.”

“What do you mean, that you have to be good?”

“You have to be good but there’s rebellion seething under the surface. Personally I think one has to be brave to live a bearable life, otherwise you just are stuck with whatever everyone thinks you should be doing. Isn’t that where a lot of the tension in life is? From the conflict between what people want us to be and how they expect us to be and what we really are? I suppose I write about characters who are struggling with that, they’re struggling at the point where expectation and reality are bashing against each other.

“If I was to say in a sentence what I write about it’s the secret currents in people’s lives. Sometimes they ignore them and sometimes they get carried along by them and something happens, but money often, really often, causes stuff from misery to drama. I think most family fallings-out and estrangements are about money. So often when someone dies or is very ill there are terrible estrangements because of money. Money is love in families very often, I think.”

“Do you think you’ll go on writing about families?”

One of the fascinating things about being human is that none of us have any idea what’s going on in the heads or the lives of anyone else, even the people we live with or are related to.”

“I just think families are infinitely interesting because everyone has secrets, everyone has resentments and desires and rebelliousness, but you think you know everything about each other. There’s massive drama there, isn’t there? That’s one of the fascinating things about being human, that everyone’s wandering around and none of us have any idea what’s going on in the heads or even the lives of anyone else, even the people we live with, even the people we’re related to.”

“I suppose that’s why books are important?” I ask.

“Yes, that’s a very good point. It’s the only way we get into the inner lives of people and that’s why I write the way I do, in the first tense. I just naturally do although I don’t like it in other people’s books. It just comes out like that. The reason I have multiple perspectives is because other people are so weird and fascinating. So for example, the relationship between Marina and [her mother] Laura is interesting when it’s in 3D. It’s not so interesting when it’s one way. I want to know what they both feel about it.”

In fact, the intensity of feeling between mother and daughter in Almost English, the longing they feel for each other’s company without being able to express it, is one of the most striking things about the book.

“I wanted to show how impossible it is when people aren’t really talking about how they feel. Maybe if Laura had dared to express that she didn’t want Marina to go to boarding school, they might have been able to find an alternative to this plainly disastrous choice. But I think that sort of snowball effect is how a lot of dreadful things happen. You think ‘Oh, I wonder about…’ and all of a sudden you’ve moved to Croatia. It really is a kind of ‘be careful for what you wish for’ kind of thing.”

We talk more about Laura, who manages to be interesting and likeable whilst actually being very ordinary, not clever or beautiful or secretly brilliant in any way.

“You’d like her if you met her but she’s not a heroine, she’s never going to be the star,” Mendelson says.

Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs has said almost exactly the same thing of her protagonist, Nora Eldridge. The portrayal of Nora caused something of a stir in literary circles, mainly it seems because Messud dared to write about a woman who is angry. Mendelson and I talk about the fuss surrounding this. She says, “It’s a mixture of cooked-up media nonsense and good old-fashioned sexism.”

We talk about how important it is that women feel it’s acceptable to not always be nice, not always be good, want to have sex but on one’s own terms and be allowed to be angry. All of this seems particularly pertinent in relation to Mendelson, who gives the impression of being someone who is pretty self-realised. She is good, bracing company but momentarily becomes quite bleak as we talk about relations between the sexes before she says, “Thank God, really seriously, thank god for the F word and for Feminista and OBJECT and all those things. I feel there is hope, there are little fires.”

Alex Peake-Tomkinson writes book reviews and features for the Mail on Sunday, the TLS and the Daily Telegraph.

Almost English is published by Picador in hardback, trade paperback and eBook.