Sunday, 5 October 2014

How to be both - Booker shortlist #4

Skipping around a little here, because I've not written yet about the Ferris (short version - fine, made me laugh, but not prize-worthy) but tonight I need to get my feelings off my chest about the Smith, How to be both.

When books start with weirdly laid out text and half sentences and breathless stream of consciousness and self-conscious defamiliarisation exercises (think person from past seeing person from present using a small black object with a shiny front to render pictures, that kind of thing) I usually slam it closed. With this one, I started it late-ish one night and nearly gave up in disgust: in fact I was close to abandoning the whole Booker project since I couldn't see how I could possibly get through this modern, self-indulgent nonsense, and nor could I see how I could have any respect for a set of judges who'd chosen it for the shortlist.

Fortunately my focus on the task won, because I loved it, goodness, I loved it.

I loved both of the main storytellers (a historic and a modern), I believed in them, I trusted them, I felt their pain.
I loved the historic setting, and the world of art it took me into.
I loved the depictions of friendship and romance.
I loved the utterly convincing voices (particularly of Francescho).
I finished it and turned straight back to the beginning, because I wanted to look back at it with the perspective of the ending.
It's made me want to read about the paintings in question, and listen to the music.
 Most importantly, it's made me wish I'd written it, made me wish I could have half the skill and craftsmanship that Smith's shown here. I wish I'd ever written even one character as true as Francescho or George. I wish I was brave enough to use words in the ways she does, to try out things that are bold and challenging and difficult.

I still hate the front cover, although it's a picture that's mentioned in the book, so you can see why it's there, because it makes a thoroughly non-shallow book look shallow. And I'll stick to my original view that some of the defamiliarisation stuff really is clunky (though nothing like as clunky as in the Jacobson). But these are tiny things in the context of a book that pulled me in, had me reading on the stairs, reading with it propped open with my foot while reading Winnie's New Computer to my boys, reading as I danced the baby to sleep....this is what prize books should do to you, and it did.

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