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I had expected to be writing a gushing review exhorting people to read a great novel from one of Scotland’s liveliest writers. I have loved almost everything Ali Smith has written.

 

Alas, How To Be Both has not hit the mark. Basically, it is two novellas, stitched together. In one of them, we find a 15th century Italian girl, dressed as a boy in order to pass herself off as a painter, working on frescoes for the local Duke. This girl, who adopts the name of Francescho, spends time exploring her sexuality in brothels, consorting with a pickpocket, and demanding more money. Oh, and she is dead. Possibly. From time to time, we are reminded that Francescho is in purgatorio, but mostly we find ourselves reading a straight autobiographical narrative, chopped up into little pieces and scattered into a random order. The narrative is written in a preudo-mediaeval voice interspersed with modern colloquialisms such as “Just saying”. Sentences themselves are fragmented and drift off into the ether. It is very confusing.

 

Then, abruptly, the story finishes and we find modern teenager, George (really Georgia), remembering a holiday to Italy with her mother shortly before the mother died. They saw the frescos that Francescho had painted and wondered about the life of this painter. Cutting between present day grief, greatly exacerbated by the heavy handed school counsellor, and happier past memories, it feels choppy. There is a story of growth and loss; there is a sexual ambiguity; an awakening of an adult from the chrysalis of childhood.

 

The gimmick is that you can read either story first. The Kindle edition prints the entire text twice – first 15th Century-Current, then Current-15th Century. You can read whichever version you wish. Not that I imagine it would be a very different experience since the stories seem only very loosely connected. Perhaps we are supposed to wonder whether the 15th Century narrative was just made up by George. Certainly it never felt quite authentic as a mediaeval narrative. And although the George narrative felt more real, it didn’t seem to go anywhere.

 

Normally Ali Smith’s writing is clear and unambiguous, drawing beauty from human life rather than from arty language. However, this seems to have been abandoned for How To Be Both where much is opaque. It is especially difficult to tell what is happening at any given point in the Francescho narrative as it seems to be so half formed and to wriggle about so much.

 

I’m not quite sure what Ali Smith was trying to do here. Her short fiction is excellent and her novels are playful and innovative. Perhaps this is trying to be both but it isn’t succeeding. 

 

***00

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I was both delighted and disappointed by How To Be Both. But not both at the same time. Both parts, printed in both orders, cover exactly 184 pages each, but I instinctively knew that I would enjoy the contemporary story more than the one about the Renaissance artist, and deliberately bought a copy with the contemporary part second, so I would have it to look forward to. (Yes, yet another advantage of bookshops over amazon: you can choose your copy.)

Ali Smith is brilliant at evoking the mindset of a precocious teenage girl, and she pulls off the characterisation of George in the same consummate fashion as she pulled off the character of Astrid in The Accidental.

Ali Smith is also brilliant at handling the tricks played by memory – and the way that dwelling on certain memories is like picking scabs. Painful and pleasurable – both at once. The juxtaposition of George’s recent past (when her mother was still alive) and her present (when she is mourning her mother’s death) is very adroitly done. The BBC broadcaster John Humphrys’ recent highly risible comments about the "entirely bogus sense of immediacy" created by the so-called historic present to talk about the past must have made Ali Smith snort into her morning coffee. Come on, Humph, it’s entirely logical to use the present tense to refer to the past if you’re reliving that past AS IF IT WERE STILL THE PRESENT, and here the abrupt switches from present to past tense correspond very effectively to the moment when George snaps out of her vivid memories and has to deal with the daunting reality of the present moment once again.

And Ali Smith’s periodical use of "like" is a welcome reminder of her brilliant exploration of the use of the semantic vagaries of that word in "Like", her first novel:

"You say something's like something else, and all you've really said is that actually, because it's only like it, it's different."

And you have to admire the way she slips in an entirely convincing-sounding example of the oft-frowned-upon juxtapostion "been being"… (Wish I’d noticed what/where it was…)

I hardly reckon Ali Smith will scoop the Booker (for which this is her third shortlisting) on Tuesday. They didn’t dare give it to Nicola Barker, and they’ll probably give it to something more readable and mainstream (Joshua Ferris, I would imagine… )

(My four stars are a compromise between the only-just-three for the Renaissance part and the very-definitely-five-and-shame-I-can’t-give-it-more for the George part.)

****/*****

Edited by jfp

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I enjoyed both halves but overall preferred the Francesco del Cossa half ('m using the spelling of the name as in the National Gallery).  Declaring 'an interest' here because many years ago I studied and enjoyed a module on Renaissance art and felt like George(ia)'s mother in the second novella in that I wished I could fly off to Ferrara. Googling some of the fresco images, especially that of the dark-skinned man in white  tattered clothes, enhanced my pleasure in the book.

 

It took me a while to get into the second (in my addition) novella and the use of language as pointed out above but I stayed with it and recognised the linguistic skills.

 

(In a fortnight's time, after visiting the Goya exhibition at the National Gallery I'll be off to find gallery no.55 and Cossa's monk painting.)

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Finished this yesterday, I enjoyed this novel and like Chuntzy preferred the section about Franchesco del Cossa. While I found the story in its self to be somewhat incomplete, I did really like Smith's writing and enjoyed this book.

with the first one in my copy being the one about George, it took me a little bit of time to get into the whole story so I think I might have preferred if it had been the Franchesco section first.

 

Googling some of the fresco images, especially that of the dark-skinned man in white tattered clothes, enhanced my pleasure in the book.

when I saw that image on the inside jacket of my copy when I got the book on Christmas day, I thought it was a woman.

 

 

****

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