Ali Smith’s How to Be Both

Ali Smith, How to Be Both (Penguin 2014)

024114521XThe Art Student gave up on this book after a very few pages. But, well, I’d heard people rave about it, so I decided to brave those first pages of what looked like sub-modernist gobbledygook and give it a go anyhow.

Sure the opening pages are tough going. (The book is in two parts. In different copies, the parts, both labelled ‘One’, are in a different order, so my introductory pages may be your transitional ones, and the problem may not exist for you.) It turns out that the narrator is a 15th century Italian artist re-emerging from oblivion into temporary ghostly existence in 2013. At first, the artist’s grasp on language is rusty, but within 10 pages or so the narrative settles down. The artist, Francescho del Cossa (who really existed, generally known as Francesco), tells his own story in fragments as they come back to mind, and tells what he observes of a young woman in modern England who has been instrumental in his return to the world. That’s not quite accurate, but if I fixed it I’d be getting into spoiler territory, so it will have to do.

It’s an ingenious book. One part (the first in my copy) is Francescho’s narration. The other tells the story of George, the modern young woman. Each sees parts of the other’s story from the outside, only partly understanding it, but the reader doesn’t understand the whole of either story until you’ve read both: Francescho’s modern narrative begins where George’s leaves off; George gives us details of at least one painting that in effect completes Francescho’s story.

It’s an interesting and amusing read, and the writing is generally elegant and lucid. There’s an interesting and plausible take on gender as perceived in 15th century Italy: not exactly 21st-century inner-city gender fluidity, but not a rock-solid binary neither. A lot of time is spent on Francescho’s art, the making of it in the first part, the viewing of it in the second. This is all lively and intelligent; it moves the plot forward, and sends the reader off to look for the paintings (which all exist, beautifully, in the real world); but maybe some of it could have been saved for the DVD extras, and there is a climactic revelation about a painting that only works if you don’t actually use Duck Duck Go to see the painting for yourself. The modern story, dealing with bereavement and adolescent stirrings, also has its bits that might have been better as DVD extras, particularly mother–daughter arguments about History, and sessions with the school counsellor (all good, but repetitive and surely not all necessary). And at times both narrators seem almost coy about telling their stories: was George’s mother having an affair? was she the subject of surveillance? how did she die? who was the older woman who gave George cups of tea? why? what do the painted eyes mean? Is it all just pretty patterns formed by events with no actual connection? We’ll never know.

So I’m not about to tell the Art Student and other people who were deterred by the first pages that they’ve made the biggest mistake of their lives, but it’s a book that keeps you on your toes, and I’m not sorry I read it.

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