How to be both

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Read 12/03/2017-13/03/2017

Rating: 5 stars

Ali Smith wrote the introductions to some of the recent English translations of Tove Jansson’s non-Moomin books. I liked her observations, so decided I should read something by her.

I picked a book at random from the shelf in my local library, and came home with How to be Both. I had no idea what it was about. It starts with a woman coming to terms with the death of her mother. Timely, then. Especially the bit about there being a you from before the death and a you from after the death.

At least they’ve used an apostrophe, the George from before her mother died says.
I do not give a fuck about whether some site on the internet attends to grammatical correctness, the George from after says.

Yep. Pretty much how it’s working for me. On the plus side, things that would have wound me up before, I can’t be bothered caring about. On the minus side, I don’t really care about much at all, which is making being an enthusiastic performing monkey at work a challenge. But I put my front on, like a dutiful colleague.

But there you go. I’d only read 5 pages before I was forced into reflecting on how my grief is progressing. I continued to read.

George is a teenager, it turns out, which goes to show that grief for your dead mother at 16 is no different to grief at 46. She’s your mum. She still has stuff to teach you about the world, no matter how old you are. It’s hard when she’s not there to do it.

I liked George. She’s precocious and clever, obsessed with syntax, funny, and capable of confusing the adults who are trying to help her in her grief. She has an interesting view of the world, seeing things very precisely, but with a different focus to the average. We spend time with George inside her head, learning about what she’s thinking and not thinking, feeling and not feeling. We witness her become the responsible adult for her brother as her dad falls apart. We see her try to find meaning in her life again through actions inspired by remembered conversations with her mum. She finds friendship with a classmate who is also trying to work out how to be, and who returns love to George’s world.

I liked her dead mum, too. She’s a political activist. She dies unexpectedly. George thinks she was under surveillance in the months before she died. She challenges George with questions about love and meaning and worth.

There’s another storyline to the book. It’s about a painter in Italy who is only known to exist because a letter he wrote was found 400 years after he was alive. George’s mother is interested in him, and takes George and her brother Henry to see the fresco he helped to create. His story is a mystery for the first half of the book, as George tries to work out who he was. For the most part, he’s a subject for discussion, but in the second half of the novel he becomes a character in his own right. He materialises in front of one of his own paintings hanging in the National Gallery. In a rush of words, part poetry, part stream of consciousness, littered with hanging sentences, he recalls his professional life. The rivalries, the intrigues, the opportunities, and the choices he made along the way. He’s confused by the world he’s appeared in, disdainful of its shoddy workmanship, perplexed by the way everyone is in such despair that they must permanently carry with them votive tablets that they worship and contemplate on the move. He’s very funny. Through his observations, we witness the next stage in George’s story.

The painter has also experienced loss. His mother dies when he is young. Through his memories of what his mother gave him, the stories and lessons, the opportunities, he understands that he has been allowed to be who he is. He understands that we are anonymous, unknown by anyone.

Cause nobody knows us: except our mothers, and they hardly do (and also tend disappointingly to die before they ought).
Or our fathers, whose failings while they’re alive (and absences after they’re dead) infuriate.
Or our siblings, who want us dead too cause what they know about us is that somehow we got away with not having to carry the bricks and stones like they did all those years.
Cause nobody’s the slightest idea who we are, or who we were, not even we ourselves
– except, that is, in the glimmer of a moment of fair business between strangers, or a nod of knowing and agreement between friends.
Other than these, we go out anonymous into the insect air and all we are is the dust of colour, brief engineering of wings towards a glint of light on a blade of grass or a leaf in a summer dark.

These are some of the most powerful words I’ve ever read. In my current grief, except what I feel is softer than the word grief allows, so in my current state of mourning, I found them comforting. I think because they encompass what my mum encouraged each of her children to believe – that we are who we are, and we can be whoever we need or want to be in any given moment. It helped me to accept that feeling sad is what I need to do at the moment. I don’t have to explain it. I will be something else on another day.

What a remarkable, wonderful book. I think I’ve found a new favourite author.

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10 thoughts on “How to be both

  1. I read this a couple of years ago and totally loved it, like you. I can also recommend Hotel World. She really is brilliant. I’m glad this book was the right one at the time for you.

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    1. I wonder why, too. Perhaps drily arch post modernism is easier for the literati to embrace than honest human understanding. It’s safer in a way, I suppose. I tried to read White Teeth, but I couldn’t find any affection for it, so I gave up. I haven’t felt compelled to try anything else by Zadie.

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  2. I read How to be Both a couple of months a go and felt the exact same way. Ali Smith is now definitely my new favourite author. I’ve just finished There But For The and would recommend it! She also has brilliant short story collections so lots to read 😉

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