Tuesday, 26 December 2017

How to Be Both


Book Title: How to Be Both
Author: Ali Smith
Date Started: December 3rd 2017
Date Completed: December 26th 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Historical, Adult
Quality Rating: Four Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Three Star
Final Rating: Four stars

I'm a bit sore about this book; I think my enjoyment was seriously affected by the formatting on the Kindle version. I still enjoyed it, but I ended up being more concerned with if I'd missed something at the start of the book that I wasn't able to properly focus on the book itself. If I hadn't read up on the formatting while I was reading it I would've been completely lost, and I was still pretty confused.

If you don't know, half the print run of How to Be Both has Francesco's story at the start of the book, and the other half have George's first. The idea is that everyone who reads it will read it slightly differently, and have a different experience. Which, for the record, I think is a great idea. Until you mess it up on the Kindle format - which a lot of people read. In the Kindle version, BOTH editions are included in the same file meaning that a) I felt like I was reading a 400ish page book slower than a tortoise b) when you actually finish the story, you start reading the exact same thing again thinking it's just deja vu and c) most readers are always going to read Francesco first unless they know about the formatting style and skip halfway through the book.

The last of those I'm actually grateful for. Francesco's story takes place in the Renaissance, while George's is modern day. I don't think I would've personally been pulled into the story had it started with George - that's just personal preference but the exploration of a female painter hiding as a man to be able to work is fascinating, while George's story follows more of what you immediately think of for Ali Smith: modern, political, everyday person dealing with the internal struggles of life. All good, but you collect far more references and parallels having read the historical era first since the developments in society move forward rather than backwards. Perhaps the idea is that you continue to reread the story the other way around afterwards and see how the experience is different.

The thing that always gets me about Smith's writing is how it somehow captures perfect, pure moments of human experience. Subtle, insignificant things when we go through them, but translating the way a mother smiles after her child says something, or the shock registering when someone discovers your secret - capturing those tiny reactions so perfectly in writing astounds me. That's what makes her writing stand out, and it's why I always come back to it.

The only downside is it doesn't string together for some people, and I have to count myself in that. Those moments are wonderful, and the prose is easy-to-read and understand, but the story beats don't connect as intuitively for everyone and can be hard to follow. Smith's writing isn't for everyone (though I disagree with people who say she's unnecessarily difficult and pedantic - she isn't at all, she's just honest), which is a shame since it discusses things that are so relevant to today: what is it to exist in this era? How do we interact with the past, as well as the present?

It's always fascinating to read Smith's books, but I am sad that I don't connect to them in the same way a lot of people do. Though part of me wonders if it is an age thing. It doesn't have to be patronising to admit that the number of years of human experience you've had affects the way you perceive and absorb things. I'd be interested to read some of her work again when I'm older and see if I enjoy it more.

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