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Monday, March 2, 2015

How to Be Both by Ali Smith

The book was long listed for the Booker Prize, which gives you a sense that you might be in for something that is not entirely straight forward.  It has two interconnected stories. There is a teenage girl called George whose mother has just died and who is left struggling to make sense of her death with her younger brother and her emotionally disconnected father. And then there is an Italian renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure responsible for a series of striking frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.

I did not realize this until I read a review of the book afterward, but depending on which copy you pick up at random, you will either be presented with George's story first or with Francesco's. The two narratives twist around each other like complicated vines – one of George's last trips with her mother was to see the Ferrara frescoes and del Cossa is haunted by strange visions of a teenage girl who uses "a votive tablet" and holds it to heaven "like a priest raising the bread". The fact that this votive tablet is an iPad and that the reader is in on the joke while Francesco isn't--that is the heart of the novel, that these two figures are linked by their stories and not by their times, and it is an innovative and interesting book to read from start to finish, so long as you can take the criss-crossing of time periods without warning.

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