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.