HOW TO BE BOTH by Ali Smith
Occasionally infuriating and impenetrable but undoubtedly a masterpiece. This book floored me… but I would be lying if I said I enjoyed every minute of it. I’m having a particularly hard time arriving at a star rating because Ali Smith is a genius and I want to read everything she’s ever written (this was my first time reading her), but I found this book inspired and frustrating in equal measure.
How to Be Both is comprised of two halves – one of these follows Francescho, a female Renaissance painter in the 1400s who disguises herself as a man to legitimize her art, and the other follows George, a teenage girl living in Cambridge in the present day, recovering from the death of her mother. Half of the editions printed of this book have Francescho’s section first, and the other half start with George’s.
I had Francescho first, in a twist of fate that I believe ultimately worked out in my favor. Starting with Francescho is undoubtedly the more difficult approach to this novel – when ordered this way, Ali Smith is essentially taking your hand and asking you to stumble around in the dark with her, until you reach the end of George’s section and have this stunning, wondrous moment of clarity that makes all of the precursory confusion worth it. Based loosely on the life of the Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa, Francescho’s section is written in experimental, playful, tonally anachronistic prose which is fierce and unapologetic, though undeniably frustrating at times. Sometimes there’s a difference between recognizing the author’s intent (i.e., sacrificing historical authenticity for a modern tone was a very deliberate literary decision that ultimately did serve Smith’s larger goals with this novel) and appreciating the effect: though I knew it wasn’t The Point, I kept wishing the setting of 1400s Italy would come to life in a more convincing way. Every time the words “just saying” came out of the mouth of a Renaissance artist I got jolted out of the story, which in a way feels like quite a pedestrian complaint when Smith’s vision was so much loftier than a simple historical story, but I’m not going to pretend that I was so swept away by the novel’s postmodern structure and philosophical musings that I was happy to eschew all conventions of setting, plot, and character development.
Goerge’s half is the much more traditional of the two, and the section I did ultimately prefer, but having read them both it’s hard to conceive of one without the other. Admittedly as I headed into George’s section, I was not convinced that these two disparate narratives were going to dovetail in a satisfying way. They do, of course, because Ali Smith knows exactly what she’s doing, as obvious thematic parallels begin to emerge (the role of names in shaping our identity, art’s versatility and timelessness, the relationship between perception and reality), but the two narratives ultimately do begin to play off one another in a much more literal way than I had been expecting.
Reading through positive reviews of this book, what I find so wonderful is that the Francescho people and the George people are both convinced that starting with their section is the Correct way to experience this book. That’s how you know the premise isn’t a gimmick, because there’s really no consensus about which works better. Though the order of the two stories obviously does have a huge bearing on the experience you have with it, it’s exciting that two different novels are essentially coexisting inside this one book – the two novels not being George and Francescho, but George-Francescho and Francescho-George. Again, I think starting with Francescho is the more difficult way to approach the novel: if you start with George, you’ll have a better idea of the big picture as you embark on the second half, but having that delightful ‘oh, now I get it’ moment as everything ties together at the end was half the fun for me, so I’m glad I experienced this book the way I did.
Even though I didn’t like this book 100% of the time I did ultimately love it, and I cannot wait to see what else Ali Smith has to offer.