How to be Both – Ali Smith

Ho this is a mighty twisting thing fast as a fish being pulled by its mouth on a hook…

The words ‘Award Winning’ usually have me running for the hills – Oscar nominees are usually very good, very boring films, for instance! But somehow, the accolade of winning the Man Booker Prize this year brought this book to my attention and I thought, why not shake my reading up a bit?

The big marketing ‘thing’ with this book is that the two sections can appear in either order. They are linked, but fairly loosely.

My copy started with the section on 15th Century artist, Francesco del Cossa – who, I only learned after reading, was a real person. I might have enjoyed this part of the book even more had I known I could go google for some of the artwork being described – so, maybe do that!

There are more than a few reviews suggesting that this section was difficult to enjoy, and had to be returned to after reading the more modern half. I confess, the opening few pages almost saw me give up: the stuttering stream of consciousness just did nothing for me, nor the repeated use of “Cause” for because, and “Just saying” – not very in-period, really! But I love art, and this period, so it wasn’t too hard to keep going. However, it all ends rather abruptly, and so I went on to the other section hoping for some explanations…

The other half of the book follows George struggling to cope after the death of her mother, in a contemporary setting. It’s (clearly!) very well done, interspersing grief and memories and the struggle to keep going with modern life. But of course, as it doesn’t actually ‘follow’ the tale of del Cossa, there is no resolution to be had.

So here’s the thing: literary fiction isn’t my usual read, and it sort of grates on me that it ‘gets away’ with a whole pile of things that so-called genre fiction wouldn’t. Like, no real plot, and certainly no real resolution(s). The two parts of the book do tie together, in a fashion, but with minimal explanation.

Overall, it’s obviously very well written, and the prose is a joy to simply read. But while it deals with art, and death, and grief, and all sorts of other ‘real’ stuff admirably, I can’t help but feel a small ‘well, what was THAT about?’. Maybe the flaw is mine, and I’m simply not deep enough for this kind of book! 😉

Consider this moral conundrum for a moment…

HB: 372 pages, 2 sections which can be read in either order.
Read 13th – 25th June 2015

My rating: 7/10