Much as I admire Ali Smith sometimes I feel that some writers regularly dominate the shortlists for book prizes and they squeeze out other potential new writing talent; it would be nice if the judges could spread the attention around a little more. Having said that she is a writer who is doing interesting writing, and, from this article in the Guardian, sounds like a really interesting person. I picked this book, 'How to be both', for the Weirdathon challenge because of the way she has played with the narrative structure: the book is in two parts, and in half of the books the story of George is first, and in half the story of Francesco. Depending on your copy your reading of the story will be different, and thus your perception of the narrative. I borrowed the book from the library and that copy had Francesco's story first. I could not figure out what was going on, I thought it was going to be all avant-garde and impenetrable, and took it back to the library. This copy came to me via Simon Savage in a freebie package from Penguin Books, and it has George's story first, and it completely gripped me, I read it in about two days. This is not going to be a long waffly review, because when I really love a book I often don't stop to write down any quotes, it's as if the writing just floats though your head and transfers the story to your brain by osmosis. You end up with an intuitive sense of what she is writing rather than a series of hard and fast events and images.
George's mother has died and in struggling to make sense of it she begins to revisit memories of their trip to Italy to see the frescos of Francesco del Cossa. She becomes something of an observer: of the painting by Francesco in the National Gallery, of her mother's former 'friend', of a young girl in a pornographic video, and of the slowly mouldering ceiling of her bedroom. It's as if she wants to take a step back from the world, not be part of it. Her bond with her younger brother, and a new friendship with H become the only things keeping her sane. Mirrored by the gender ambiguity of George's name is the spirit presence of Francesco, a real 15th century Italian artist who Ali Smith recasts as a woman, able to overcome the prejudices of her era and fulfil her artistic potential with the collusion of her father. She watches over George's shoulder, thereby also becoming an observer, of an existence that should be almost incomprehensible to her, and yet in which she manages to find parallels with her own life. So George's story floats back and forth between the motherless present and the mothered recent past, while Francesco's floats between her ghost watching George and the tale of her growing up and becoming an artist and the adventures that led her to work on the frescos that George and her mother travel to Italy to see.
What I loved about this book is how everything is tied together, how the themes of art, creativity, friendship and loss are reflected across both halves of the book. There is a detailed description of the photo on the front cover of the book and Francisco analyses the image, as if it were created by a master painter. George goes repeatedly to see the painting by Francesco, sitting examining it in minute detail, and surveying the behaviour of other gallery visitors, counting how many stop and look, and timing how long their attention is held there. It made me want to visit the art gallery and spend more time just looking. Dunk bought me a 1000 piece puzzle of Jackson Pollock's Convergence for my birthday; the process of putting it together is forcing us to examine the picture in detail, to consider the way the paint has been applied, to examine the layers and the interaction of the colours, to think about the process of creation. When it is finished we will probably either love it or hate it, but it has made me think more about how you appreciate a piece of art.
Here is George imagining the decline of her bedroom ceiling:
"Anyway, George's room, given time, enough bad weather and the right inattention, will open to the sky, to all this rain, the amount of which people on TV keep calling biblical. The TV news has been about all the flooded places up and down the country every night now since way before Christmas (though there has been no flooding here, her father says, because of the medieval drainage system is still as good as it always was in this city). Her room will be stained with the grey grease and dregs of the dirt the rain has absorbed and carries, the dirt the air absorbs every day just from the fact of life on earth. Everything in this room will rot.
She will have the pleasure of watching it happen. The floorboards will curl up at their ends, bend, split open at the nailed places and pull loose from their glue.
She will lie in bed with all the covers thrown off and the stars will be directly above her, nothing between her and their long-ago burnt-out eyes." (p.12-13)
And here the child Francesco, after the death of her mother:
"I put my head through the slit in the sleeve as if it were the neck opening: I dragged the dress through the house, me in it.
I wore nothing but her clothes from then on: I dragged them in the housedust for weeks, my father too weary to say no, until the day he picked me up in his arms (I was wearing the white one, big, filthy now, ripped a bit where I'd tripped on the stones one day and when it'd caught on the doorframe another, today I was all sweat and heat in it, my face a colour I could feel) so that the trail of the heavy material left the floor and hung behind us both over his forearm like a great empty fishtail as he carried me through to her room.
I thought he would beat me, but no: he sat me down still in her overgown on the shut trunk of clothes: he himself sat down on the floor in front of me.
I'm going to ask you kindly to stop wearing these clothes, he said.
No, I said.
(I said it from behind the stiff shield of the front of the dress.)
I can't bear it, he said. It is like your mother has become a dwarf and as if her dwarf self is always twinkling away in all the corners of the house and the yard, always in the corner of my eye.
(But cause the shoulders were so high over my own deep in the dress, no one but me knew I'd shrugged.)" (p.214-15)
A wonderful book, a worthy winner of everything it has won.