How to be both by Ali Smith
Most of the advance publicity for this novel focused on the fact that there would be two versions of the book on sale. The reader wouldn’t know until they started reading which version they had purchased since both had identical covers. Some readers would open it to find the spirit of the Renaissance Italian painter Francesco del Cossa awakening to discover a teenager scrutinising one of his frescos. Others would begin with the story of that teenager, a 21st century Londoner known as George, who is subsumed by grief over her mother’s death.
Two stories, both labelled part one, that can be read in any order. I imagine many people would decide this book was not for them based on that description, maybe thinking Smith had really written just two short stories rather than a full novel. Or worse still, querying whether this approach was simply a marketing gimmick. Neither reaction would be doing justice to this book. It isn’t a book of two distinct and separate halves. Still less is this a gimmick. Instead what we have is a finely constructed dual narrative in which each story dovetails with and reflects the other and where the very duality of structure is fundamental to a key theme in the novel — how the meaning of images and words change when looked at from different perspectives.
Many of the scenes, particularly in the George part of the book, pose questions about ways of seeing. The questions come from George’s mum, a freethinking and subversive woman who challenges her two children to consider art and history in new ways. At one point George recalls a visit with her mother and young brother to the Palazzo die Diamanti in Ferrara, near Bologna. Although entranced by del Cossa’s frescos, George is less than enamoured with her mother’s detailed explanation of how art restorers sometimes discover under drawings that are significantly different than the finished work.
Which came first? her mother says. … The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?
The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.
But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?
Which comes first? her unbearable mother is saying. What we see or how we see?
Francesco del Cossa becomes the thread that connects George to her dead mother, helping her to come out of her cloud of grief, to interpret life in a new way. Finding del Cossa’s painting Saint Vincent Ferrer in the National Gallery her first reaction is that’s it’s nothing special, that it’s looks just like any other religious painting, featuring a severe faced monk who seems to be admonishing anyone who has the audacity to stop and look at the painting.
But then you notice that he’s not looking at you. He’s looking past and above you, or into the far distance, like there’s something happening beyond you and he can see what it is. …
And what is it that has attracted the attention of the monk? Could it be the spectre of the artist himself who watches George (mistaking her for a boy). The two are inexplicably connected:
…it is as if a rope attached to the boy is attached to me and has circled me and cannot be unknotted and where the boy goes I must go whether I want it or don,t
This is just one of the playful, puzzling aspects of the book. It’s a book that probably should be read one and a half times if you want to truly understand how cleverly it has been constructed I read the medieaval part first and having got to the end of part two, immediately returned to part one looking for the patterns and connections. If I’d read George’s story first, would my experience have been any different? Something I’ll never know but I have a feeling that whichever way you read it — whichever part you encounter first, you’ll be dazzled.
How to be both is published by Hamish Hamilton. It was short listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. And if this doesn’t win I will be astounded.