Tuesday, September 09, 2014

how to be both

How to be Both
Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton

Elizabeth Day reviews Ali Smith's How to be Both: How to Be Both is not a multi-choice narrative, but the textual order depends on an element of chance. The book has two interconnected stories. There is a teenage girl called George whose mother has just died and who is left struggling to make sense of her death with her younger brother and her emotionally disconnected father. And then there is an Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure responsible for a series of striking frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.

Depending on which copy you pick up at random, you will either be presented with George's story first or with Francesco's. The two narratives twist around each other like complicated vines – one of George's last trips with her mother was to see the Ferrara frescoes and del Cossa is haunted by strange visions of a teenage girl who uses "a votive tablet" and holds it to heaven "like a priest raising the bread". The fact that this votive tablet is an iPad and that the reader is in on the joke while Francesco isn't, is just one of the witty touches with which Smith splices the novel.

At its heart, How to Be Both, which has already been longlisted for the Man Booker prize, is an eloquent challenge to the binary notions governing our existence. Why, Smith seems to ask, should we expect a book to run from A to B, by way of a recognisable plot and subplot, peopled by characters who are easily understood to be one thing or another?

Smith's characters revel in surprising us – George has a boy's name but is a girl whose sexuality is only just being explored; Francesco is born a girl but binds her chest and lives as a man. When Francesco is taken to a brothel by a male friend, the artist declines to sleep with the prostitute but draws her instead. When, centuries later, George and her mother study del Cossa's frescoes they cannot tell who is male and who is female. In the end, they decide it doesn't matter. And when Francesco sees George for the first time, she assumes George is a boy, only to discover later that she had been mistaken.

Jan Dalley reviews Ali Smith's How to be Both: For a writer, it can be perilous to have a superperceptive adolescent as your primary narrator — that way cutesiness lies — yet Smith gives herself two of them. And the broken-backed structure of a novel in two halves, their time frames separated by centuries, is overfamiliar, and courts the risk that readers will spend the second half of the book picking up on clever parallels, rather like a sixth-form English class.

Undaunted, in her latest book Smith walks boldly into each of these danger areas, but skilfully makes the territory her own, skirting every pitfall and adding so much unexpected richness that we forgive the occasional stumble into the expected.

In the modern half of the book George, short for Georgia, is named to alert us to the gender-bending that beats like a pulse through both narratives. After her mother’s death, George lives in the family home with her younger brother and a father who uses alcohol "like wearing a whole fat woolly sheep between me and the world". There is school, and cooking Henry’s supper, and therapy sessions with Mrs Rock.

But George’s more vivid life is lived in flashback conversations with her mother, in bunking off school to gaze at the only Del Cossa in the National Gallery, and in two unusual relationships.

One, with an older schoolfriend, is typical of clever girls testing out their first romantic feelings. It’s a loose mirror of a mysterious, almost-sapphic liaison of her mother’s, but while "H" shyly suggests she is "a bit more hands-on than hypothetical", George prefers to send texts in Latin. The other, much stranger bond is virtual, with an underage girl who is the victim of a piece of nasty pornography that George discovers by chance online.

The book’s other half transports us to Italy in the 1460s, where the odd and talented child of a mason-brickmaker has also suffered the loss of a young and vibrant mother. In the throes of grief, the child wanders the house dreamily decked in the mother’s clothes until the father, in desperation, strikes a deal: to adopt a new name and dress "like your brothers", in return for lessons in drawing and colours.

So Francescho the jobbing painter is born, and learns to be artisan and artist. We gradually discover, as his narrative develops, that Francescho is also both in his own time and out of it, both living and not, in an oblique commentary on the reach and durability of art.

As she delves into the medieval world, savouring its rumbustious textures as well as the intimacies and rigours of the artist’s life, Smith’s writing really catches fire. In this section all of her rich stylistic inventiveness, as well as her imaginative range, come into play.
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