Even if you haven’t read How to be both, you probably know two things about it. First, it has been getting noticed for many literary prizes:
- LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILEYS WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2015
- WINNER OF THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE 2014
- SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2014
- WINNER OF THE 2014 COSTA NOVEL AWARD
- WINNER OF THE SALTIRE SOCIETY LITERARY BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD 2014
- SHORTLISTED FOR THE FOLIO PRIZE 2015
The second thing you may have heard about this book is that it is in two halves and it is a matter of chance whether your copy starts with George’s story or Francesco’s. The reader cannot escape or answer the question of how it would have been different to start with the other story. And the reader must also ask themselves about the relationship between George’s and Francesco’s halves. This is the idea I enjoyed most about the book – its exploration of ambiguity. Are you looking at this? Demands Ali Smith, asking the reader to do some work.
What is the book about?
Part One (in my copy) is about George, a teenage girl in the present day, who has recently lost her mother. Her father’s grief is expressed in drinking and the care of her younger brother Henry falls to George. It is narrated in the present tense as we follow George undertaking rituals and activities in response to her mother’s death. We also see the closeness of her relationship with her mother. So here’s a ‘both’. Her mother is dead but also very much part of George’s life. ‘Because how can someone just vanish?’
Despite her grief George is able to make relationships with Mrs Rock, her school counsellor, and with Helena Fisker, aka H, a school friend who is also something of an outsider. And her search to hold onto her mother leads her to follow the mysterious white haired woman, Lisa Goliar, and to Room 55 in the National Gallery, where there is picture by Francesco del Cossa of St Vincent Ferrer.
One of the joys of Ali Smith’s writing is her description, her ability to evoke a picture in words. This extract is from George’s close examination of the frescoes at Ferrara, also by Francesco del Cossa.
It is like everything is in layers. Things happen right at the front of the pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connectedly, behind, and behind that, and again behind that, like you can see in perspective, for miles. Then there are the separate details, like that man with the duck. They’re also happening on their own terms. The picture makes you look at both – the close-up happenings and the bigger picture. Looking at the man with the duck is like seeing how everyday and how almost comic cruelty is. The cruelty happens in among everything else happening. It is an amazing way to show how ordinary cruelty really is. (p53 in version starting with George’s story)
The other Part One opens with the spirit of Francesco del Cossa emerging from the canvas to see a boy sitting in the Gallery in front of the painting of St Vincent Ferrer. The arrangement of the text on the page clearly tells us that Francesco’s story has a tortuous beginning. It recalls the mouse’s tail/tale in Alice in Wonderland. And the ‘boy’ is of course George, and there is a point to Francesco mistaking her/him.
Francesco’s biography is told in the first person; childhood talent with drawing, mother’s death, modest success as a jobbing painter, including the frescos at Ferrara which so enchanted Ali Smith (as they did George’s mother). You can find Francesco del Cossa’s April here.
Francesco captures a beautiful moment near the end of her part, observing George as she keeps watch outside her mother’s friend’s house. She has been doing this for many days, and previously an old lady has brought her tea or a blanket. The prose is odd because it is from a renaissance artist after all, but it is tender.
Today there will be blossom in the study the girl will make cause the trees in the street round this house she is looking so hard at have the beginnings in them of some of the several possible greens and some, the blossoming ones, have opened their flowers overnight, some pink among the branches, some loaded with white.
Today when the old woman came out of her house she brought nothing but for the first time sat down on her own poorly made wall behind the girl in silence and companionable.
There are bees : there was a butterfly.
That blossom will smell good to those who can smell blossom.
How the air throws it into a dance. (326 in version starting with George’s story)
Both parts subvert the idea that the world is divided into binary categories: male/female, dead/alive, old/young, gay/straight. Even your identity can be muddled with another’s, for example on a mobile phone.
What’s to enjoy about this book?
There is so much to enjoy in this book. In our book group, half the readers began with George’s story and the others with Francesco’s. Both liked the way they had entered the novel although we agreed that Francesco’s story has a more challenging opening.
We found the main characters, George and Francesco to be very sympathetic and wanted to know what would happen to them as they confront their difficulties. Although there is not a great deal of action, the novel is carefully plotted, without being obvious, and the structure echoes the theme of ambivalence and ambiguity, simultaneously being different things, being both.
I enjoy a novel that treats the reader as intelligent and makes demands. I also enjoy wit, cleverness and intriguing titles, dialogue and names. I hope you noticed the names. And the prose, even when it needs close attention, is inventive and lively. There are many small linguistic sparkles.
This book took me to Room 55 in the National Gallery to consider Francesco’s painting of St Vincent Ferrer. And now I would like to visit Ferrara as Ali Smith described in an article in The Observer. Some of fresoes are reproduced in the article.
I enjoyed this review of How to be Both on the blog called JacquiWine’s Journal.
I have enjoyed two previous books by Ali Smith: The Accidental and There but for the. In both these novels existing social groups and ordinary lives were disrupted by intruders. Look, she says. Can you see that.
How to be both by Ali Smith (2014) published by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books) 371pp
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