How To Be Both
In a change of tack in my quest to find a book which would please the demanding, vociferous, and ever-critical nature of the City Lick ladies, I approached my local book shop - the wonderful West End Lane Books - for recommendations. As always, they came up trumps.
Out of a great selection of possibilities I chose How to Be Both, by Ali Smith, as our next read. The cover told me to expect to be uplifted and joyous upon completion; I was sceptical of such high praise, but hoped for the best. I was also initially worried it would be too gimmicky as it is written, in the tradition of the best football games, as a story of two halves. Which half you begin with depends on which edition of the book you get.
Window. The first half in my book, in all the City Lickers' books, and chronologically, is entitled Window and is set at some point in 15th century Italy. It tracks fleeting moments and brief glimpses of the life and mind of its narrator from her rural childhood home where she ‘became’ a boy - Francesco - in order to become an artist’s apprentice, to her adult life as a young 'man' and virtuoso. She has sexual encounters with men and women, enters into artistic wars with her contemporaries, and navigates the blurry and often invisible line between 'boy', 'girl', 'masculine' and 'feminine' with an understated ease, the point never laboured. These memories are counterpointed with confused leaps into the character's present where she thinks she may be dead, but also appears to be tasked with following a young girl who she initially believed to be a boy.
Camera. As Window's narrative begins to fragment and dissolve, we are brought into 21st century Cambridgeshire with a thud. It is here that we join the life of Georgie, her younger brother, and her Dad, all of whom are attempting to cope with the death of Georgie's Mum. As the novel weaves in and out of Georgie's memories of the trip they took to Italy, the mural they saw there (painted by Francesco), and her Mum's life before her death, the raw pain of loss is impossible to ignore. So far, not so uplifting. Perhaps the joy in this half of the book is to be found in the family's resilience, in Georgie's ability not to forget her mother, and above all in the small rituals which our protagonist sets out to complete every day in honour of her mother (dancing to 70s music in the morning or watching an unhappy young woman forced to have sex with an older man in a porn film).
Despite some confusion regarding the intertwining of the two halves - and my insistence that it would have been much better to read Camera first - we all fell in love with this novel's many nooks and crannies. It kept us thinking, guessing, and talking for much longer than any book we've read so far and - I'm very pleased to say - the adoration was unanimous (yes, even Meera liked it. Katy even read it twice). I would definitely lend this book to friends & family, but I would insist they start with Camera in order to fully appreciate the subtleties of this beautiful piece of writing.
To discuss the book we had two obvious choices for food: modern British or traditional Italian. Both options were floated but tiny Fitzrovia restaurant Bellaria won as it had been recommended by an Italian friend. Overall it didn't disappoint, although I'm not sure we'd run back. The house wine was excellent and the food - a rich squid ink risotto, a light, delicately-flavoured fillet of cod, and a perfectly cooked piece of duck - while beautifully presented & certainly tasty, was on the small side. Not feeling satisfied, we ordered a tiramisu which, sadly, was a great disappointment: full of a thick, industrial cream & not much else we didn't take more than a mouthful.
The ambience in Bellaria was perfect for a romantic triste - and as we tried not to be so loud as to ruin other diner's evenings, we all discovered that we'd found a new author to fall in love with.
Chosen and written by Liz.