Twelve Books Challenge: How to be Both

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Several tall piles of books.This year, we’ve resolved to dive into our book collections and our e-readers and give some much-needed attention to the neglected stories within. So to help keep us to that promise, the team will be reading and reviewing twelve books by women over the course of the year. We’re excited. We’ve set up a Goodreads page where you can see what we’re reading. We’d love to hear your suggestions for books – pop us a message at @youngwomenscot on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. And if you’ve read any of these, or are inspired to write your own reviews, do let us know your thoughts.

Our second review of the year comes to us from the brilliant Theresa, our Network Co-ordinator, who read Ali Smith’s How to be Both.

How to be Both, by Ali Smith

Reviewed by Theresa Burns

For me, this was an immensely enjoyable book, one that demanded my full attention and has continued to compel me to ponder and contemplate its messages. The opening sequence required a little patience but my perseverance was richly rewarded.

Simply told, it is a book of two parts, both joyful and sad. Part one reveals the beautiful story of Francesco and part two the touching story of George. I still struggle to understand the relationship between the characters in part one and part two but this is a book that is definitely meant to be read again. There are two different version available, part one and part two are available in reverse, and this is perhaps why I am left feeling that the book has so much more to reveal.
Very quickly I am captivated by the life of the audacious and ambitious Fresco artist that is Francesco. I want to learn how to appreciate art, to study Art History and have a weekend in Italy exploring its galleries. Francesco’s stream of consciousness allows me to immerse myself in the time, place, and life of the artist. I come to believe that Francesco is my friend and it becomes a journey, where we reveal and discover hidden aspects of ourselves. Francesco’s identity from the beginning is a bit of a mystery and even at the end there remain unanswerable questions to be curious about.

Cover of Ali Smith's "How to be Both" depicting two women walking in an outdoor market on a sunny day.However, it is through Smith’s descriptions of Francesco’s art that the character is revealed. Francesco draws and paints to create intimacy and to relate to different characters. It is through art that Francesco can have and shift power, enable women to conceive of themselves differently, be-friend the wealthy and successful, spend time with a married friend. This is where the essence of Francesco’s character is revealed, a gentle and fearless hero and a story of joy and romance tinged with sadness.

In part two, when I am introduced to George and brought back into to the 21st century, it is no surprise that all I really want is to do is enjoy being in the renaissance and spending time with the feisty and intriguing Francesco. Confronted by grief and sadness, I resist getting to know George. Bereaved of her mother, George is stoically struggling with her grief. Her father is finding solace in alcohol and she is caring for her younger sibling. Smith’s telling of the teenager’s journey, is beautiful and touching. The buds of a beautiful new friendship begin, perhaps one her mother tried to prepare her for, and it is here that she finds fun and laughter and begins to discover new aspects of herself. Like Francesco, George’s story is about our most cherished and intimate relationships, how we discover and choose to reveal ourselves.

My advice to the reader is don’t resist, make time for both characters, soak up what they have to say and then get your friend to read the book. It will create the opportunity for wonderful conversations about our most precious relationships. Thank you Ali Smith!

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