How to be both by Ali Smith
Two stories in one: Del Cossa, a forgotten renaissance artist of the 1460s and George (Georgia), a modern teenage girl mourning the death of her mother. Two stories of love and injustice in a circular tale that will leave you wondering.
First Impressions: The version I read had the renaissance story first. I listened to the audiobook of Hotel World when it was published and it was clear to me that Ali Smith writes to be read out loud. Reading Del Cossa’s story was fine but I imagined how brilliant it would sound, particularly the first and last few pages.
Highlights: This is one of those novels that you appreciate even more the day after you finish it. Del Cossa’s story by itself was interesting but not compelling yet pair it with George’s story (the emotional weight of the novel) and it is all sheer brilliance. Stick with it! As other reviews state, your reading experience is unique based on which story you read first, and it is so true! The first character you meet is always the central character in your mind. You can’t unread the story and try from the other perspective. Having two stories vaguely linked like this and published in a random order sounds both predictable, exhausting and pretentious (think Cloud Atlas, perhaps) but instead it is memorable and affecting. Much to my delight, George’s link to Del Cossa’s art is believable and understated rather than awkward and obvious.
If I was an editor: I would question the use of a few of Del Cossa’s turn of phrase, particularly ‘just saying‘ which is also a twitter hashtag. Surely someone should have weeded this out?
Del Cossa’s character and story is actually all imagined by George and her modern slang and obsession with grammar and punctuation ( : ) seep through to the renaissance story…
Yet another reference to being both.
Overall: Well worth the overdue library fee.
How to be both: 5 stars
We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Rosemary is starting college and doesn’t want anyone to know about her family. As readers we don’t learn the secret about her family until page 77 and then we follow Rosemary in her quest to reconcile her past.
First Impressions: A readable novel. Obviously the reference to page 77 is a hook to keep you reading but I didn’t mind.
Highlights: I liked the secret revealed by Rosemary. It is not what I was expecting and I liked it! I vaguely remembered reading a review a while ago that disclosed the secret but I’m glad I didn’t remember this as the surprise was good. I also liked the reasons given by Rosemary for keeping this secret; it really made sense and I spent a while reflecting on what I had read earlier. So many of the offhand comments made sense!
If I was an editor: I’d be glad to find such an original book but after all the excitement of the revelation it just felt so dull. I didn’t find any of the characters particularly interesting nor was I really bothered with Rosemary’s journey. Most of the second half of the novel was a discussion on scientific ethics and Rosemary working through her issues just wasn’t engaging. There was so much potential for this subject matter. Where was the feeling and intrigue?
Overall: Really? Shortlisted for the Booker? Richard Flanagan’s in with a great chance.
We are All Completely Beside Ourselves: 3 stars
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
I have been curious to read this novel ever since hearing Richard Flanagan on Conversations with Richard Fidler. However, I admit to abandoning Flanagan’s earlier novel Gould’s Book of Fish as I found it just too much hard work. Despite this, I made sure I began Narrow Road with an open mind.
Dorrigo Evans is the surgeon in a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma Railway. He tends to the men of the camp afflicted by tropical diseases, beatings and despair while also being haunted by an earlier love affair with his uncle’s wife. Dorrigo realises there are two types of men, those who have been on the Line and the rest of humanity. This novel is based on conversations Flanagan had with his father about his experiences as a slave labourer on the Thai-Burma railway.
First Impressions: This is definitely a novel of high quality literature and the prose really draws you in.
Highlights: If the aim of the novel was to slightly traumatize the reader, then Flanagan has succeeded. I have a good general knowledge of WW2 so it wasn’t that the description of the despair in the POW camp shocked me. I am sure that most people interested in reading this novel would be in a similar situation. The events at the camp were almost like a documentary reel while the deluge of feelings became overwhelming. So many feelings. Everyone’s feelings. The Line that Dorrigo refers to also applies to members of the Japanese army in the camps so we follow their stories after the war too and that proved to be compulsive reading. One thing I confess I did not really know too much about was the respect the Japanese army had for rank, regardless of what side the person in question was on.
If I was an editor: I wasn’t so absorbed by the chapters where Dorrigo’s lover and wife are the focus, nor did I think his references to classics and literature necessary but both of these elements were no doubt included to show the whole man Dorrigo was and the latter also provided a balance to the Japanese haikus included.
Overall: A worthy literary read that perhaps should have won the Miles Franklin.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North: 5 stars
Thank you to Random House (Vintage) for a copy of the ARC to review.