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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

"How To Be Both" by Ali Smith

The first half of this beautifully written book concerns George (Georgia), a teenager mourning her recently deceased mum. She is remembering her mum. One of the things she remembers is about going to Italy on a whim of her mum's to see a painting that her mum liked by an artist who was almost totally unknown except by a letter and a few wonderful paintings. George feels guilty about when she read text messages on her mum's phone: they seem to concern another woman having an affair with mum. George herself is helped through the grieving process by Helena who wants to be a little more than just friends.

In George's memory her mother is always posing conundrums: "Which comes first ... What we see or how we see? ... Do things just go away? ... Do things that happened not exist, or stop existing, just because we can't see them happening in front of us?"

Things George's mother says:
  • "This place is shaking loose everything I thought I knew
  • "You always know where you are after a kiss.
The second half of the book is narrated by the ghost of the Italian artist who is dragged back into the world by the obsessive interest George takes in their paintings. I really loved this section;  the artist is so visual and says things like: 
  • "thin for a scholar who're usually heavy and inadequate from all the nothing but books" (p 198)
  • "I'm good at the real and the true and the beautiful and can do with some skill and with or without flattery the place where all 3 meet" (p 199)
  • "there's a very pure pleasure in a curve like the curve of a buttock." (p 201)
  • "a curved line is a warm thing, good-natured, will serve you well if not mistreated." (p 201)
  • "Art and love are a matter of ... understanding the colours that benefit from being rubbed softly one into the other: the least that the practice will make you is skillful: beyond which there's originality itself, which is what practice is really about in the end." (p 273)
  • "Love and painting both are works of skill and aim: the arrow meets the circle of its target, the straight line meets the curve or circle" (p 273)
  • "eyes that can follow you round the room, cause those are God eyes." (p 305)
  • "A picture is most times just picture: but sometimes a picture is more" (p 307)
  • "when we paint the alive the alive must be alive to the very smallest part, each hair on the head or the arm of an alive person being itself alive" (p 343)
  • "Saints are all about death. It's prerequisite, for saints" (p 347)

On page 220ish we learn something about the artist that has been well bread-crumbed, especially in the George mourning her mother section, but which I never spotted. This was so well done!

There is a wonderful set piece which had me laughing aloud; a ceremony in which Justice is played by a boy balancing, teetering, on a float with a too-heavy sword in his hand. And when the crowd cheered "the dressed-up boys on the cart looked soaked through by the noise of the crowd like they'd just been driven through a waterfall." (p 261)

I think this book is about everything being connected. In Italy George's mother talks about where they were was ruled by a family who influences the art and music of its time which influenced Ariosto which influenced Shakespeare which influenced her and G: "nothing's not connected". After G's mum's death, G makes toast for little brother Henry and muses that "she can leave dregs of butter in whatever jam she likes for the rest of her life now". The dead Italian artist cried as a child seeing ripples disappear but was told: "The ring you saw in the water'll never stop travelling till the edge of the world."

Another theme is the inevitability of love. George understands true helplessness when Helena pushes her around a multi-storey car park in a shopping trolley. And after she flicks an insect of her hand she thinks: 
"It must have felt like being punched by a god.
That's when she sensed, like something blurred and moving glimpsed through a partition whose glass is clouded, both that love was coming for her and the nothing she could do about it.

A wonderful book. November 2016; 372 pages

Ali Smith also wrote The Accidental which I didn't like so much at the time but I am going to reread because this book was so good I must have missed the other. She has also written There but for the: a set of stories linked by a man who, at a dinner party, locks himself into one of the upstairs rooms of his host and refuses to come out. Try also the fascinating Artful, a fusion of literary lectures notes with a story about the narrator imagining that their dead partner is haunting the house.

Other brilliant books by the most original of modern English writers include:
  • Autumn: a collage type work
  • Winter, another collage type work which weaves the story of a Christmas Carol with Cymbeline and the Nativity and reflects on Britain following the Brexit referendum.

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