Category Archives: Scottish authors

Snapshot: November 2014

Day 1 of November 2014 and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.

Reading

The ObservationsI started reading The Observations by Jane Harris today, a copy of which has lingered on my TBR for more than a year. It’s a very readable historical mystery novel set in a remote manor house in Scotland. Such a contrast to the book I just finished reading, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie which opens on the day a bomb falls onto Nagasaki.  Hiroko Tanaka, a young factory worker survives the attack but will forever bear the scars on her back resembling birds in flight. We follow her subsequent history in India on the brink of partition to Pakistan and ultimately New York in the aftermath of the September 11 attack. It’s a well crafted novel about allegiance and estrangement, betrayal and atonement. I’d not heard of the author but liked the idea of the plot when I saw the book at a library sale.

Listening

Also purchased in the sale was an audio version of Rebecca’s Tale,  a 2001 novel by Sally Beauman which is a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I have mixed feelings about the trend now to write prequels and sequels to successful novels by authors long since dead. Often it seems to me they are trying to cash in on a past success instead of coming up with their own ideas. But this novel was approved by the Daphne du Maurier estate so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a bit slow so far.

Watching

Since I am writing this while returning to the UK from China, my viewing options are limited to the options provided on the in-flight entertainment system. These have become so much better in recent years – remember the days when you had to crane your neck to see the tiny screen suspended from the ceiling and everyone had to watch the same film? Now most of the main carriers provide seat back systems with many options. Sadly, by the time I eliminated all the science fiction choices and the films which involve people chasing each other in cars or with machine guns, the options were rather limited. I ended up watching The Fault in Our Stars based on the novel of the same name by John Green ( a book I have not read).

I was prepared for this to be a weepy, given its subject matter of two teenagers who are fighting cancer. I’m not sure whether it is the effect of being at altitude but I find I get much more emotional when I’m watching a film during a flight. Luckily the lights were dimmed so no-one saw the resultant blotchy face.

It had some stellar performances from the actors playing the teenagers, particularly Shailene Diann Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster. I also enjoyed the cameo performance by Willem Dafoe as the jaundiced author Peter van Houten. The weakest performance of all was by Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother. She played this role exactly as she played the botanist in Jurassic Park, which is to say, badly.

How to be both by Ali Smith

Howtobe bothIn How to be both, Ali Smith provides a masterclass in how to play with the form of the novel and stuff it with layers of meaning and yet still make it highly readable.

Most of the advance publicity for this novel focused on the fact that there would be two versions of the book on sale. The reader wouldn’t know until they started reading which version they had purchased since both had identical covers.  Some readers would open it to find the spirit of the Renaissance Italian painter Francesco del Cossa awakening to discover a teenager scrutinising one of his frescos. Others would begin with the story of that teenager, a 21st century Londoner known as George, who is subsumed by grief over her mother’s death.

Two stories, both labelled part one, that can be read in any order. I imagine many people would decide this book was not for them based on that description, maybe thinking Smith had really written just two short stories rather than a full novel. Or worse still,  querying whether this approach was simply a marketing gimmick.  Neither reaction would be doing justice to this book. It isn’t a book of two distinct and separate halves. Still less is this a gimmick. Instead what we have is a finely constructed  dual narrative in which each story dovetails with and reflects the other and where the very duality of structure is fundamental to a key theme in the novel — how the meaning of images and words change when looked at from different perspectives.

Many of the scenes, particularly in the George part of the book, pose questions about ways of seeing. The questions come from George’s mum, a freethinking and subversive woman who challenges her two children to consider art and history in new ways. At one point George recalls a visit with her mother and young brother to the Palazzo die Diamanti in Ferrara, near Bologna.  Although entranced by del Cossa’s frescos, George is less than enamoured with her mother’s detailed explanation of how art restorers sometimes discover under drawings that are significantly different than the finished work.

Which came first? her mother says. … The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?

Which comes first? her unbearable mother is saying. What we see or how we see?

Francesco del Cossa becomes the thread that connects George to her dead mother, helping her to come out of her cloud of grief, to interpret life in a new way.   Finding del Cossa’s painting Saint Vincent Ferrer in the National Gallery  her first reaction is that’s it’s nothing special,  that it’s looks just like any other religious painting, featuring a severe faced monk who seems to be admonishing anyone who has the audacity to stop and look at the painting.

But then you notice that he’s not looking at you. He’s looking past and above you, or into the far distance, like there’s something happening beyond you and he can see what it is. …

And what is it that has attracted the attention of the monk? Could it be the spectre of the artist himself who watches George (mistaking her for a boy).  The two are inexplicably connected:

…it is as if a rope attached to the boy is attached to me and has circled me and cannot be unknotted and where the boy goes I must go whether I want it or don,t

This is just one of the playful, puzzling aspects of the book. It’s a book that probably should be read one and a half times if you want to truly understand how cleverly it has been constructed I read the medieaval part first and having got to the end of part two, immediately returned to part one looking for the patterns and connections. If I’d read George’s story first, would my experience have been any different? Something I’ll never know  but I have a feeling that whichever way you read it — whichever part you encounter first, you’ll be dazzled.

 

End note

How to be both is published by Hamish Hamilton. It was short listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. And if this doesn’t win I will be astounded.

 

 

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