How To Be Both by Ali Smith - book review

 

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The Independent Culture

How to Be Both is, as its name suggests, concerned with simultaneity: its two overlapping plots both ask if it’s possible to be male and female, in the past and the present, to be present and absent, to appear one thing and mean another. Ali Smith’s writing often disrupts forms in a joyous, mind-expanding fashion, and in How to Be Both, she mischievously remodels the novel with both brazen ambition and sneaky subtly.

The Booker-longlisted work is also a challenge for a reviewer: there are two ways of reading it, and it’s difficult to “be both”… Its two halves may be printed either way round, with nothing to tell the bookshop-browser which version she’s picked up. Whichever way, some aspects will feel disconcertingly over-emphasised or under-explained in the first half, and then humming with significance in the second, like delayed punchlines.

I encounter George first – a teenager whose mum died unexpectedly. She becomes preoccupied with her mother’s fear that she was under state surveillance because of her satirical cartoons, and with her mother’s subsequent relationship with a woman who might have been a lover, or a spy (or, naturally, both). George also dwells on a trip with her mum to see some frescoes by an Italian Renaissance artist.

The other half brings to life that artist, Francescho del Cossa, pulled into the present from beyond the grave to shadow George. We hear his life story, including the (speculative) fact that he was actually a she, and that she also lost her mother young.

Even in such hopelessly bald summaries, you can sense the dense assonance between the two halves. Smith mimics the structure of the frescoes themselves, painted on three levels, each streaming away into the distance (the past?). And there are layers you can’t always see at first: the del Cossa frescoes were hidden for centuries, whitewashed over, just as Francescho whitewashes her gender. Looking and watching are frequent thematic concerns, and can be powerful: both George and Francescho will use their eyes and their art (a painting, a cameraphone) to bear witness, to challenge power.

Even the humble wall may become totemic; references build up, brick-by-brick. Francescho is the child of a brickmaker; her art was largely on walls. George’s grief is a wall; she is a wall “against which other things impact without her permission”; she sits on a wall to stalk her mother’s spy/lover. But finally her walls, too, are broken down – by art, by love, by laughter.

Smith’s writing is smart, witty and arch, both utterly contemporary and vividly historical. Francescho’s remembering of the 15th Century, the alchemy of making paints – for example – is earthily caught: “We need plants and stones, stonedust and water, fish bones … dull things down if they’re too bright with earwax.”

But George’s engagement with the modern world is also precisely captured. When she misses the beginning of a TV show, she “simultaneously [watches] it from the start on catch-up on her laptop.” Smith isn’t judgey – indeed, the idea of living of your life in several channels is thematically relevant. For a novel both can (imaginatively), and really cannot (physically), have that overlapping quality: “If things really did happen simultaneously it’d be like reading a book but one in which all the lines of the text have been overprinted ... to make it unreadable.”

The historic/modern distinction is also problematised by Francescho’s incongruous catch-phrase, “just saying”. So joltingly internet-speaky, it abruptly reminds the reader of the work’s status as fiction – none of it’s in 15th-century Italian, is it?

The impossibility of “authentically” recreating an historic voice is explicitly tackled elsewhere. George decides to do a school presentation on empathy in the voice of del Cossa, but realises it would be absurd: “He’d be all alas I am being made up really badly by a sixteen-year-old girl who knows fuck all about art.” As an exercise in empathy, George reflects, an artist you know nothing about coming back from the dead – instead of the person you miss most in the world – would be “exactly the kind of stunt her mother would pull.”

Would it? Is it? Is the whole Francescho section her mother’s way of returning to watch over George? Might George’s imagination have conjured the artist? Just saying. But maybe I would just say that because I read George’s section first … I got attached. Sometimes, it’s hard to be both.

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