This is my third attempt at writing a post before we leave. The half-finished drafts sitting on my computer feel very reminiscent of my brain these last three weeks — vague, tired, distracted. I am excited but equally in disbelief that we get on a plane in just a few days. This trip has been almost two years in the planning and now, here it is. I’ve been finishing up work, saying goodbye to family and friends, and packing up our apartment ready to put our Melbourne lives into storage and it’s been just as full-on as you would expect. I’m exhausted, run-down and emotional. This is a heady time, but not necessarily a good one in which to read. So here is a holiday-style post, as I did with ‘The Summer of Memoirs’, featuring two recent reads: Ali Smith’s How To Be Both and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread.
How To Be Both can arrive in the readers’ hands in one of two forms: the first begins with a tale of the Renaissance, the other a modern-day coming-of-age story. But both rely on each other to such an extent that it almost doesn’t matter which order they follow—though I had read almost everywhere reviewers who had read George’s tale first were glad this was how their copy was structured, my copy began with Francesco’s story and was still incredibly rewarding. In reaching the end of the book I understood why this had been mentioned so greatly, and while the fifteenth-century narrative is harder work for the reader, watching the tale mirrored in the modern day was beautiful and heart-warming.
In each story gender lines are blurred: George has masculine name, Francesco is a girl who binds her chest and lives as a man. Smith uses this androgyny to discuss the power of gender. In Francesco’s case, she is told that she will not be privy to the same opportunities as her brothers without taking action. But when she begins spending time at a brothel where she forms bonds with the girls, drawing their bodies allows the girls to seem themselves as forms of unique beauty, rather than the commodified objects they have become. This is conveyed by the anger of the house host:
You little idiot, she said. Have you no idea? They look at your pictures. They get airs and graces. They come to my rooms and they ask me for more of a cut. Or they look at your pictures. They get all prowessy. They decide to choose a different life. And all the ones who’ve gone have left by the front door, unprecedented in this house which has never seen girls go by anything but the back. Don’t you understand anything? I can’t have that. You’re costing me. So, it follows. I must ask you to stop frequenting my house. Or at least to stop drawing my girls.
How To Be Both also acts as an exploration of the power of art. As with the transportive quality of Francesco’s portraits, George wonders, ‘Imagine if you made something and then you always had to be seen through what you’d made, as if the thing you'd made became you.’ For both characters art is a form of escape. It offers another vision of how things may be, but equally a heightened version of the realities that confine them.
Throughout the novel Smith never stops making you work for her affections and attention. Sentences such as ‘So much we forget ourselves in a life’ are beautiful little fragments that are strewn throughout, but they are often structured such as this, in a way that makes the reader stop, think and question. How To Be Both is a complex read, full of subtle mirroring and hints at what has been or what is to come. I loved this review of the novel in The Telegraph, which feels like a perfect summary:
The pain of mourning and loss is seared into the lives of Smith’s two motherless heroines, but despite the novel’s refusal of consolation and the profound seriousness of the questions it explores, How to be Both brims with palpable joy, not only at language, literature, and art’s transformative power, but at the messy business of being human, of wanting to be more than one kind of person at once. The possibilities unleashed by the desire to be neither one thing nor the other means that one may ever and always strive to be both. With great subtlety and inventiveness, Smith continues to expand the boundaries of the novel.
A Spool of Blue Thread is the story of the Whitshank family, told through several generations. It is very reminiscent of the Great American novel style of writing such as Revolutionary Road, Stoner or The Corrections — an epic tale of a family with big personalities and conflicts, told through the every day details. Like The Corrections, the family dynamic is shocked into turmoil by the sickness of one of the parents, and the ghosts of the family’s childhoods come to the surface.
Tyler’s narration is approachable yet tender. Her characters seem equally mundane yet undeniably human.
The disappointments seemed to escape the family’s notice, though. That was another of their quirks: they had a talent for pretending that everything was fine. Or maybe it wasn’t a quirk at all. Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever.
But like Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses, it is the physical home rather than the people who inhabit it that really holds the truth to the Whitshank family history. As Tyler remarks: ‘"This house" really meant "this family", it seemed. The two were one and the same.’ There are constant references to people and activities 'being hard on the house' — dogs, children, being away and leaving the house unattended. Tyler paints the house as a feminine object to be nurtured and to nurture others in return, as Abby witnesses in her early introductions to the Whitshank family:
When she had a house of her own, she wanted it to be just as expansive and welcoming as the Whitshanks’, with strays dropping by for meals and young people talking on the porch. Her parents’ house felt so closed; the Whitshanks’ house felt so open. No thanks to Mr. Whitshank. But wasn’t that always the way? It was the woman who set the tone.
Reading A Spool of Blue Thread whilst packing up my life here in Melbourne, I was really moved by the idea of building a home for yourself, the idea that the home is an expression of who you are. It made me think that it doesn’t matter where you are, but what you make of your surroundings. After a few days in a hotel to recover from the long-haul flight we will move into an apartment in Kreuzberg, which will be our home for the first few months in Berlin. Though it will be furnished with other people’s belongings, it is exciting to think that it will our own little space. That soon it will hold our coats hanging on the hooks, our books on the coffee table, our tea brewing on the kitchen bench. It is our chance to make the kind of home, albeit temporarily, that Tyler describes in A Spool of Blue Thread: ‘It was a house that said "Welcome," that said "Family," that said "Solid people live here.”’ The kind of house that opens up a whole new world every time you walk through the front door:
Birds were singing in the poplars above him. Small white butterflies were flitting in one patch of the sun. When he reached Linnie’s side he took hold of her hand, and the four of them climbed the steps. They crossed the porch. He unlocked the door. They walked into the house. Their lives began.
My home for the last two years has been Thornbury in Melbourne’s inner north. It is such a wonderful little pocket of the world and one that has been so kind to me, as I waxed lyrical about in my post for The Life of Houses. In these last few weeks I’ve hardly been cooking at all, and when I have it has been to use up what’s left of the pantry and to take final advantage of buying insanely cheap vegetables and deli goods from the Psorakos market. Instead, I’ve been stopping by all of my favourite cafes and restaurants for one last time. Burgers and cider at Raccoon, Lebanese pizza at The Moor’s Head, cocktails at Trumpy, poached eggs and flat whites at Short Round, the perfect gluten free pizza at Pizzza Farro, pastrami sandwiches and ice cream sundaes at Sookie La La, and milkshakes in the sun at Mitte. Being so close to friends, having great places to eat where the staff refer to you as ‘regulars’, listening to Courtney Barnett songs and thinking ‘hey that’s my neighbourhood’. I will miss this place, this home that we made for ourselves. We have outgrown our apartment, but we will always hold the neighbourhood dear. We don’t know exactly where we’ll live when we get back, but we do know that this part of Melbourne will always feel like home. As Tyler writes in A Spool of Blue Thread, no matter where we find ourselves, ‘north was where home was, he’d be willing to bet—drawing them irresistibly, as if they were migratory birds.’
Tonight we fly to Berlin. After waiting for this time to come for so long it is suddenly here and it feels incredibly surreal. One thing I know is that I will keep writing book-plate while I’m away. It has become a big part of my practice as a writer and a bit part of my life. I would feel lost without it. There is a beautiful line from How To Be Both: ‘Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.’ I guess that’s how I feel about book-plate — it’s a way for me to write and share, though I have very little idea with whom and how often. I hope while we’re away that book-plate will let me share with you new writers, new books, new recipes and new places, and a chance to experiment a little too (such as maybe changing up the photo format - what do you think?) but I will be taking a few weeks when we arrive to settle in and find my way. I hope you’ll bear with me and keep up with my discoveries via Instagram in the meantime. But know that I have a beautiful pile of books to accompany me on the plane, and another for the first week after we arrive (yes, I have been painfully planning these for months!) so there are plenty of books to talk about when I’m back. Until then, happy reading friends.