Short List Booker Prize 2014
Halfway through the 3rd paragraph there is going to be a serious spoiler. Be warned!
When I started reading How to Be Both I was slightly apprehensive: was I about to read a very long poem? Why did the first pages have such a strange shape? Then it dawned upon me that its protagonist, painter Francesco del Cossa, had died centuries ago. The jaggedness of the first pages had to do with his ghost being transported to 21st century Cambridge. Getting used to his new situation as a ghost, Francesco regains his ability to talk fluently. Towards the end, when he is about to disappear again, his words become raggedly. almost poetic again.
How to Be Both contains two stories: Francesco observing a young girl who has studied one of his paintings; the other the young girl, George, telling her story. I started reading about Francesco, only to discover later on that there are also versions of How to Be Both that start off with George. As it turned out my e-book contained both: after I had finished George’s story, it relooped. This time starting with George. I am glad I was given Francesco’s story first. As he became increasingly intrigued by the young girl and her strange behaviour (not counting the things he as a Renaissance painter would obviously find strange, such as taking pictures with her I-pad), I also found myself increasingly wondering who the girl was and what part she was going to play in How to Be Both? I am not sure whether I would have been just as intrigued if I had read about George first and next about the painter she is that preoccupied with. Truth of the matter is that it is all hypothetical: I was given Francesco first and I am pleased about it.
Francesco talks about his life, his aim to become a famous painter and the people he knew. When he talks about painting it becomes quite apparent that he is totally dedicated to his art. We meet George after her mother has died; she remembers the time she visited Italy with her mother and brother and went to visit the beautiful fresco’s painted by a rather unknown painter, Francesco del Cossa. Their stories are intertwined in an intricate way. It is not just the fact that they kind of meet, its is also the fact that there are certain parallels in their lives and personalities. Francesco (or rather Francesca) speaks her opinionated mind through her paintings, George through questioning facts. Both their mothers fed this tendency by never letting them accept the way things are at the surface: both girls have to look for what is beneath the surface.
How to Be Both is poetic, philosophical and challenges its reader. In return the reader is rewarded with a love story, albeit one structured and told in a significantly different way. I was deeply touched by George and her sorrow, I rooted for Francesco’s goal to become a famous painter. I was sad when I turned the last page. The Booker Prize 2014 winner? I definitely hope so.