Charlotte Mendelson plays unhappy families in her latest novel

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Charlotte Mendelson plays unhappy families in her latest novel

The author finds that family dynamics are great fodder for her writing

Alex Galbinski is a Jewish News journalist

Charlotte Mendelson
Charlotte Mendelson

The patriarch in Charlotte Mendelson’s latest book, The Exhibitionist, is a horrible character. An artist who had fleeting success years ago, Ray Hanrahan is now an odious and controlling narcissist who rules his long-suffering wife, Lucia, adult daughters Leah and Jess, and stepson Patrick, with not so much an iron fist but an iron tongue.

“We’re famously happy, aren’t we. Aren’t we? And totally unique,” he says at a celebratory dinner ahead of a private view for his first solo show since the mid-nineties.

They are certainly not happy. A successful sculptor in her own right, 54-year-old Lucia has been avoiding answering a call from a gallery owner about an amazing opportunity because she has learnt not to seek too much critical success to avoid incurring Ray’s artistic jealousy. She is being emotionally abused, as are the other members of the family, but apparently no-one can see it.

Jess has moved from London to Edinburgh to escape Ray. Unfortunately, she has become involved with Martyn, whom she isn’t sure she loves but who hangs off Ray’s every word. Leah is Ray’s “devotedly loyal” fan, who is at his beck and call, while Patrick has effectively been banished to the garden, browbeaten.

“He’s not meant to be someone you love,” says Mendelson of Ray. “Narcissists don’t really care about the effect they have on others.”

There are, however, glimpses of a different future for all of the characters; the reader hopes they will follow their own path and no longer be cowed.

“We all know people who are in marriages or relationships where you think ‘why are you still with them?’ And it’s because he has so worn down Lucia’s confidence and courage that it has become impossible.

“And so the story of the novel is about the tipping point – what happens when there are enough reasons to not tolerate it anymore? He’s not hitting her, but the emotional abuse is there and strong.”

It’s the classic reason as to why Lucia, like any abused person, stays in a bad relationship. “However interesting, intelligent and potentially successful she is, that’s totally irrelevant,” continues Mendelson.

“He has successfully made her think she isn’t. But then a combination of things makes her think, ‘hang on…’ In a small way, it’s about the felling of a tyrant.”

Mendelson has said she most enjoys writing characters whose passionate and painful inner world clash with how they are expected to behave, and the characters in The Exhibitionist, which was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, are no exception.

“What fascinates me is how people have secrets and fierce driving emotions,” explains Mendelson, who is a gardening correspondent for The New Yorker. She is also a former book editor who now teaches creative writing

“I like writing about families, because they’re fascinating and weird. It’s a very strange idea that you’ve got to all get on because you’re in the [same] house. And families are such a pressure cooker, because everyone has different things going on that they have to conceal from the others, even if it’s just, ‘I’m miserable’, ‘I hate my job, but you all depend on me’, or ‘really I want to be a ballet dancer’.

“And then I’m interested in how that happens in the wider world too, so in other communities; or in this instance, it’s just a family, but it’s also the art world.”

Mendelson, now 49, doesn’t feel she herself had much to hide growing up, but says about her younger self: “I was dramatically nerdy and very anxious about everything, which I now realise was more a kind of temperament and epigenetic trauma than anything, but at the time I thought there was something wrong with me.”

Her maternal grandparents were Czech Hungarian and came to the UK in 1939. We discuss the concept of the suitcase metaphorically packed ‘just in case’. “Exactly!” she says. “And, of course, it explains why so many Jews, but also so many people of other minorities, have issues with anxiety. Because if half of your grandparents’ family was murdered, you’re not going to be that relaxed!”

Mendelson, who grew up in Oxford and has two children from her former marriage to the writer Joanna Briscoe, went to a boarding school in Kent for “two miserable years” and then to Oxford University. She says she doesn’t feel English and doesn’t have a “drop of English blood” in her; her paternal grandfather was Polish and her paternal grandmother was “absolutely a Cockney who was born within the sound of Bow bells”, whose own parents were Latvian.

“I’m a complete mixture,” says Mendelson, describing herself as a secular Jew who likes the idea of being a member of a synagogue but isn’t sure “if I can quite make the commitment”.

“I’m always telling people that, despite my accent, I’m not posh. And people don’t really believe me, but anyone Jewish immediately gets it. If you’re Jewish, you can’t feel posh because you’re always sort of on the edge of things. So I feel English compared to being from another country, but I grew up with foreigners. I feel Jewish-English.”

Despite currently working on her sixth book, Mendelson says it never occurred to her that she could be a writer. But she acknowledges she is lucky – “I’ve had an incredibly good education and I grew up with lots of books, so I was always further on that journey than lots of people. It’s a cheesy thing that politicians say, but it is a privilege.”

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson is published by Mantle, priced £16.99 (hardback) and is available now
















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