How to be Both by Ali Smith

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Reviewed by Harriet Devine

I’m not one of those people who rush out and buy all the Booker longlisted books on principle, or even the shortlisted ones, or even the winner. I read books if they appeal to me, and sometimes they may happen to have appealed to the Booker judges too. And as it happened, having taken a good look at this year’s longlist for our eds’ discussion, which you can read here, I did find that there were a couple of books I’d like to read, and this was one of them. I haven’t by any means read everything by Ali Smith, but what I have read has convinced me that she is a novelist worth reading, and How to be Both has absolutely vindicated me in this.

If I say that this novel is experimental, radical, innovative, you may think it’s probably not for you. But you’d be making a huge mistake. Yes, Smith plays with text, with form, and with ideas, but the book is immensely readable and, though sometimes dealing with pain and grief, is overall a hugely enjoyable and joyful experience.

The first innovation you’ll encounter, though you would not recognise it as such if you weren’t forewarned, is that this book of two halves – two distinct stories, both headed part one, which intertwine across hundreds of years of time – has two printed versions. So which of the stories you start with will depend quite arbitrarily on which version the bookseller sells you. I didn’t know this until I’d read the book, which in my version begins with the story of Francesco del Cossa, an Italian Renaissance painter celebrated for his frescoes, and is followed in the second half by the story of sixteen-year-old Georgia, always called George, who lives in 21st century London. Once you do know, you can’t help pondering on what your experience would have been like if you had started the other way round.

So yes, these two stories are related in various ways. In what is, I suppose, the most mysterious half, Francesco slowly surfaces as if emerging from or through a wall, and as finds himself looking at the back of a figure in an art gallery (a figure that we later can see was George, looking at the frescoes). The process of his returning memory is evoked through the language:

can hardly remember my own name can hardly
rememb anyth
though I do like, I did like
a fine piece of cloth
and the way a ribboned bit off a shirt
or sleeve will twist as it falls
and how the faintest lightest nearly not-there
a charcoal line can conjure a sprig that splits open
a rock…
but oh God dear Christ and all the saints – that
picture he’s – it’s – mine, I did it

He slowly becomes aware of being in a completely unrecognisble world, and only over time comes to remember, or intuit, an experience of death. Other memories make their way in – the painting of frescoes, a period spent in a brothel learning to draw and learning about sexuality – but also Francesco is able by some means or other to observe George, a bright and thoughtful girl, who is suffering desperate grief at the recent death of her clever, challenging, feminist mother. Over time we learn certain things which connect the two together. One is that George’s mother had taken her two children to the Ferrara Palace in Florence to see the very frescoes that Francesco recalls painting. Another is that not only does George look somewhat like a boy and is somewhat confused about her own sexuality, but Francesco is really Francesca, having been early put into boy’s clothes and apprenticed as an artist, a career she could not have had as a woman. One of the his/her paintings from the famous fresco is actually reproduced on the back cover of the novel. It shows a beautiful androgenous figure that George’s mother points out to her:

The way he used that figure of the effeminate boy, the boyish girl, to balance the powerful masculine effect of the worker,  and how this figure holds both an arrow and a hoop, male and female symbols one in each hand. On this alone I could make a reasonably witty argument for its originator being female.

So – there are stories within stories, stories side by side with stories, stories echoing stories. How, indeed, are the two halves of the novel related? “Imagine it. You’re an artist”, George’s mother says to her at the beginning (and at the end) of George’s half. So, is the Francesco half simply George’s response to this? I think that’s too simplistic an interpretation of what is the most subtle and complex of novels. Of course Francesco’s half is imagined, if not by George then in any case by Ali Smith. But George’s half is equally imagined by Smith, who is herself an artist, with words rather than with paint. But to say that this is a novel about art, or about imagination, is only a small part of its complexities. It’s also about love, and life, and relating to others. Its about how to navigate a confusing and often desperately sad and often mysterious world, about growing up, about learning to interpret what we see. And its about the possibility of finding joy.

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Harriet is one of the Shiny New Books Editors

Ali Smith, How to be Both (Hamish Hamilton, London, 2014) 978-0241145210, Hardback, 384 pages.

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