How to be both, by Ali Smith
How to be both is a novel all about art’s versatility. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real – and all life’s givens get given a second chance.
How to be both is one of the books I was most looking forward to from the shortlist. I’m a big fan of Ali Smith – although I know just as many people who can’t stand her books as love them. Much like many of her books, I suspect this one is Marmite – you’ll love it or hate it.
It’s experimental in format. The book contains two narratives: the story of George, a modern-day teenager in Cambridge whose mother has just died; and the story of Francesco del Cossa, an Italian renaissance fresco painter. Half the copies of this book were printed with George’s story first, and the other half start with Francesco’s, so it’s a 50/50 chance which you will pick up. The copy I read had George’s story first, which I suspect made it easier to read – although I did find Francesco’s story equally gripping, it was much harder to get into.
Because if things really did happen simultaneously it’d be like reading a book but one in which all of the lines of text have been overprinted, like each page is actually two pages but with one superimposed on the other to make it unreadable.
Although presented in two separate sections, the two narratives intertwine. One of George’s last trips with her mother was to see Francesco’s paintings in Italy, and Francesco has visions of George in the future. I saw plenty of echoes of George’s story in Francesco’s, and suspect there were just as many the other way around – I think if I’d read the book with Francesco’s story first I’d probably have noticed more echoes in George’s.
The stories reflect each other thematically as well. Gender and sexuality is a key theme: When Francesco first sees George she assumes she is a boy. When George and her mother go to see Francesco’s paintings, they disagree over whether a key figure is meant to be male or female. George is beginning to explore her sexuality, and understand how gender identity affects her place in the world. Francesco was born a girl, but disguises herself as a boy and later a man so she can be trained and work as a painter.
You could be like your brothers, he said.
I eyed him through the lace-up of the neck and the chest : I spoke through the holes of the dress. You know I am not like my brothers, I said.
Yes, but listen, he said. Cause maybe. Maybe. If you were to stop wearing these too-big clothes and were to wear, let’s say, these boys’ clothes instead. And maybe if we allow ourselves a bit of imagining.
As well as the two stories intertwining and echoing each other, the same structure applies internally to each story. This was particularly noticeable in George’s story: George, coming to terms with her mother’s death, struggles to separate out the time before and the time after she died. She speaks about the same things happening simultaneously: her mother is dancing, inexplicably, in their living room, at the same time George sits there alone, waiting for her father to come home from drowning his sorrows.
I absolutely loved this book. I can see it not appealing to everyone, and I suspect it is a much more challenging read if you get a copy that starts with Francesco’s story rather than George’s, but it’s well worth the effort either way. Although I found Francesco’s story harder to get into, I ended up enjoying it just as much.
It is George’s section that’s really stayed with me though. The segments where she’s talking about her grief over her mother really struck a chord with me – it’s the perfect description of what that kind of loss does to you, and does to a family.
How are you feeling? Mrs Rock said.
I’m okay, George said. I think it’s because I don’t think I am.
You’re okay because you don’t think you’re okay? Mrs Rock said.
Feeling, George said. I think I’m okay because I don’t think I’m feeling.
I’m hugely impressed by How to be both. It’s a very strong shortlist this year, so I’m having trouble picking a favourite, never mind a likely winner, but I think this is a very strong contender. Intelligent, challenging, witty and compassionate, this would be a very deserving winner.