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The pinnacle of matriarchy - (Orange Prize for Fiction 2008 Shortlist)

When We Were Bad, by Charlotte Mendelson (Picador)

Dean Nicholas
posted 13 June 2008

The selection of Charlotte Mendelson’s third novel for the Orange Prize Shortlist came as the latest in a formidable line of accolades for its author. She was listed as one of Waterstone’s 25 authors for the future; tipped by Harper’s Bazaar in their ‘Forty under 40’ feature; her previous book, Daughters Of Jersualem, won both the John Llewellyn Rhys prize and the Somerset Maugham award. A heavyweight literary prize seems the next step.

The expectations placed by a family on its children, people who navigate avoiding their parents’ mistakes and not falling foul of the filial code of conduct, is the theme of When We Were Bad. The novel’s milieu is North London’s Jewish community, from Holloway and Gospel Oak across to Hampstead and Golders Green, with the much-traversed Heath the radial point. Mendelson clearly knows the area well, and depicts its haunts and streets with the diligence of an A-Z, as if, like Joyce attempted with Dublin, to delineate the entirety of this particular area so it coan be reinvented picture-perfect centuries from now.

In this detailed locale reside the Rubin clan, where matriarch Claudia is a mould-breaking rabbi with a reputation that has pummelled her family’s individual lives into insignificance. The Rubins are spun into a paroxysm of despair with the decision of cherished son Leo – ‘the most patted boy in North London’, a responsible barrister and entirely predictable figure in word and deed – to reveal, at his own wedding, that his beloved is not his imminent wife but in fact the spouse of another local rabbi, who he’s been having on the sly.

This act begins a slow-drip of Rubin secrets that fall out like hidden bookmarks from the portrait pages of the revered family, where appearance and propriety trump personal satisfaction. Eldest daughter Francis, who begins to suspect she is a lesbian, is stifled in a dull marriage by a tedious Gradgrind of a husband who diligently reads Stuart history one chapter per night, worries about hairline cracks in the ceiling, and is in thrall to his mother-in-law. The two youngest children have failed to fly the family nest and console their consciences with embittered talk of thwarted careers as artists and actors; husband Norman is releasing a book, a token of his own literary ambition kept hidden so as not to upset his wife’s own. Meanwhile, Claudia Rubin herself conceals a secret which she cannot reveal as she prepares for the family’s annual talk-of-the-town seder.

And so the family’s fortunes wax and wane through the novel’s 300 pages, with each member marshalling their own issues whilst paying obsequy to the Rubin name, their self-interestedness bouncing off the misunderstandings and motives of the others. Mendelson treats her characters with Chekhovian disdain, turning the screws on the Rubin dynasty with the same sadistic joy as the Russian did with his Ranevskaya Clan in The Cherry Orchard. She illuminates a particularly British kind of filial obligation with a rich and at times, for goyim, complex account of Jewish praxis and dialogue (fortunately a handy dictionary at the back offers translation of the Yiddish expressions liberally applied throughout).

Mendelson keeps a firm hand on her style. The prose is economical, and characters are stung off the page with sharply-aimed epithets – Frances, for example, is described by her mother as ‘a particularly disappointing segment of tangerine’. Characters are shuffled in and out quickly, liberally, so that one arc is not given sufficient time to outstay its welcome before the next Rubin’s foibles are unpicked At times the tone is perfect. The scene where Leo is spurned by his erstwhile co-eloper will ring horribly true for anyone who has experienced abruptly-terminated affection.

Yet for all this, there is something underwhelming. And it is this: reading Mendelson’s biography and prior novels, what is remarkable is her lack of ambition. The idea of a person being deposited in London, then coming to grips with a hitherto unrealised homosexuality as an adult, is straight out of Mendelson’s own life story and one she covered well in her first novel, Love in Idleness; meanwhile in a recent interview she described the North London setting of this novel as ‘like the best bits of Oxford (where she grew up) stirred into a big metropolitan pot of glamour and squalor’.

Mendelson clearly has talent as a prose stylist and a detailed chronicler of family life, yet there’s a pressing need for her to expand beyond the boundaries her previous fiction. When We Were Bad finds her reaching the apogee of her restricted subject matter: it’s to be hoped her next project finds her challenging herself as well as her readers.


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