Tuesday, January 27, 2015

'How To Be Both' by Ali Smith

27 January 2015

I like a bit of ambiguity and the novelist Ali Smith seems to specialise in it. I know her novels, such as 'The Accidental' (reviewed here in May 2006), frustrate some readers with their unresolved plots and loose ends, but occasionally it's nice to read something that challenges you and really makes you think. I've just finished reading Ali Smith's new novel, 'How To Be Both' (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by John Banks). It's a fascinatingly unconventional story consisting of two halves, both titled 'Part One', which can be read in either order. (Half the printed copies of the book have the parts one way round and half the other.) The two interlinked tales – of a teenage girl in contemporary Cambridge coming to terms with the death of her mother and the (fictionalised) life story of the (real) Italian early-Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, are full of parallels. George is a girl with a boy's name while Francesco is a woman living as a man. George can bring her mother back to life by remembering their times together in the present tense, just as biography can bring long-dead people like Francesco back to life. 'How To Be Both' is about being both male and female, alive and dead, light and dark. The novel focusses on the art of allegory, the technique of painting and the act of remembering (and forgetting). George lives in the place where DNA was discovered and the double helix acts as another example of 'both'. Both halves of the novel end quite abruptly (a bit like the sections of David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas') and leave the reader with lots of unresolved questions. I think your view of the book would be substantially different depending on which half you read first. George's mother asks which comes first, the painting you see on the surface or the picture which has been obscured beneath it by an artist reusing a canvas. George says the earlier painting obviously came first but her mother points out that it is not the one we see first now. Francesco's story occurs both after George's narrative and (in extensive flashback) before. If you read George's half of the book first, there is a suggestion that the other half is George's school project to imagine the life of Francesco del Cossa – though this is never confirmed. 'How To Be Both' is extremely clever, intricate and fascinating, though it can also be a bit annoying. There is an excessive use of “he said, she said” throughout, which feels like a stylistic device that might work better in print than it did in the audio book. And this is not a novel for lovers of plot – it is a book of characters and ideas. George's pedantry, in relation to grammar and tenses, alerts the reader that every word has been carefully considered and there are beautiful layers of meaning and ambiguity in the text (like tiles layered upon a roof).



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