How to be both- Ali Smith

This novel has already won the Costa Novel Book Award 2014 and is long listed for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015. It is a book of two parts and the copies in the shops will start with either one or the other part first, just to eject us from our comfort zone from the start and to raise the question: does linearity in narrative matter? My copy started happily with the present day story: a sixteen year old girl called George is visiting a palazzo in Italy with her mother to look at a room full of frescoes. Mother and daughter have a loving relationship, characterised by witty banter: they enjoy the rich panorama of the tapestry and particularly notice one end of the room, painted with a superior technique, by one Francesco del Cossa, as it later turns out. Fast forward a few months and back in London George is grief stricken- her apparently healthy mother has died of an allergic reaction and she is attempting to come to terms with this while holding the fort at home for her father and younger brother and managing her school life. She ends up bunking off school and travelling down to London to an art gallery, to spend time looking at another painting by Francesco del Cossa and running into an old friend of her mother. I really enjoyed this section of the book: language is forefronted, through the pedantry and mischief of George, who corrects everyone’s grammar and enjoys playing tricks on the stolid counsellor Mrs. Rock. Language is played with, as when George and her friend Helena exchange song titles in Latin and we the readers get drawn into guessing their English equivalents or guessing the meaning of explanatory texts in Italian. We are exposed to a tough but plausible account of the life of a contemporary 16 year old, with smart phone bullying and universal consumption of dreary pornography. Yet this is a young person in mourning and her fragility is conveyed heart breakingly when she asks whether the dead have memories, when she keeps a daily tryst with the poor young woman who is the object of lust in a pornography film she has come across.

The other half  of the book is told from the viewpoint of the artist Francesco del Cossa and the writer has cleverly woven themes, ideas, individual words into the narrative, which resonate with themes from the first part, before the stories meet in a more concrete way. We learn of the artist’s early years as a painter, friendships and attempts to find work and patronage, visits to brothels. We later realise that a boy/girl he is watching is George and that he is present as an invisible being in our contemporary time. Now, somehow for me, this section did not work as well. I found myself simply less interested in this character and it is not that I don’t like historical fiction  (Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies) or novels about artists and their technique ( Girl with a Pearl Earring). I wondered if somehow the voice was not as convincing for me or that it was harder to find something to identify with in the narrative. It may also be the result of having read and really enjoyed the contemporary story first-a reluctance to move to another story.

So the novel is playing with the idea of being ‘both’ in terms of both past and present, both  male and female, of meaning being layered and uncovered like the discovery of frescoes. Ali Smith cleverly explores these ideas in words, phrases, themes which echo and resonate from one story to the other and the reader has to work at uncovering the layers.

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