How to Be Both – Ali Smith

My 20 Books of Summer challenge this year began with a false start for two reasons: I’m publishing my first review at the end of June, so a month late (backlog of previous read books got in the way), and I did not finish my first book. Maybe it is because in my May round-up I mentioned that I’m reading this book and that I probably won’t finish it before end of May, I was not wrong on that account, I was wrong however, writing that it will probably be the first of my #20booksofsummer, as I didn’t finish it at all I can only count it as number 0.

I noticed I got in a habit of starting my posts by describing where I got the book, I haven’t judged yet if it’s a good or bad habit, so allow me to continue it for a while longer until I make up my mind. I borrowed this book from my friend probably almost two years ago, I rarely borrow books from people, because I’m horrible at giving them back. It’s not even that I forget, but it takes me forever to get to reading a book I borrowed and then I feel guilty I’m keeping someone else’s book from them, so generally I try not to borrow, but in this case I wasn’t sure if I’d like the book and my friend didn’t seem overly enthusiastic about reading it anyway, so I took it. It is possible that over the last 2 years she did want to read it, but as I see her every day at work she had ample opportunity to somehow nudge me to give it back, or that’s what tell myself to assuage the guilt. It was guilt though that finally got me to start reading.

The book consists of two separate but related stories one about Renaissance artist and the other about a grieving teenager, one of the tricks is that the stories may come in different order depending on our copy. In my case I started with the story of George, a teenager who lost her mother and tries to somehow make sense of this unthinkable loss. In her narrative she drifts between present and past, small things in the present triggering memories of time spent with her mother. Through those memories we get to know their relationship, which was a bit eccentric, there is constant push and pull between the mother and the daughter, the mother challenging George all the time, making her think and often being quite cold, only to suddenly change into an open and emotional person. The main point of connection between them seems to be art and the mother’s passion for it, the belief that it has the power of changing the world, even if only for one person.

While working through her loss George becomes friends with H., a girl from school, H. seems to impress her with her free-thinking, maybe she reminds her a bit of the mental challenges that her mother always threw her way. But the relationship with H. seems to be more intimate, maybe because they are equals, there’s no mother daughter hierarchy. I enjoyed the slow flow of George’s tale, her observations and memories, her sensitivity to world around her and to injustice.

Then the time came for the second story and I was struggling from the beginning. I am not a fan of formal experiments, I must admit both in theater and in my reading I am a bit of a traditionalist, stream of consciousness and similar techniques are not really my thing (unless it’s my consciousness of course) and that was the first struggle. I tried to get over it and I managed to read some pages, but I just couldn’t engage with the story and the artist enough to care and feel it was worth my effort. I know the book received many awards, but for me it just didn’t cut it, I will be a bit mean and say that the second story felt pretentious to me, I do admit it may be because I didn’t finish it, maybe it was redeemed in the end. I did enjoy George’s story and I’d happily read the rest of it.

I was thinking about the trick that allows the book to start with either of the stories, depending on our copy. Would I read the second story if it was first? Was it the contrast between them and their form that I found so jarring? I honestly don’t know.

Has any of you read it? Which copy did you have?

This was supposed to be book #1 of my 20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746books, but since I didn’t finish it, I’ll mark it cheekily as book #0.
See my list as it grows here.

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska 

20-books 2017

4 thoughts on “How to Be Both – Ali Smith

  1. I’ve been curious about this one, I’ve never read an Ali Smith but I see her on blogs all the time.

    Personally I enjoy hearing how people acquire the books they post about! I have a book I borrowed from a friend like five years ago that I haven’t yet read! And I don’t really see or talk to this person anymore, so I guess it’s mine now, ha ha. It was The Waves by Virginia Woolf.


  2. Pingback: June round-up –

  3. Pingback: The Best Saturday Surprise Ever –

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s