How to be Both by Ali Smith is an exciting and fresh take on the classical linear narrative. Exploring two very different storylines in each half of the book, Smith allows the reader to develop their own understanding of the plot where there is no definite resolution.
Depending on the copy of the book you get, you are presented with either one of the two storylines first. Both sections are named “One” – neither of the two is needed to understand the other, but they are undeniably connected in subtle ways. In my copy, I was introduced to George first. George is a teenage girl struggling to accept her mother’s recent passing, as well as dealing with her father’s detachment and alcoholism. She makes a new friend with whom she explores one of her last memories with her mother – their trip to the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy. Her mother was intrigued by one particular fresco made by a renaissance artist, Francescho del Cossa.
This is where the second narrative comes in – part two of the book deals with the artist himself, and his complicated path as a painter whose work was unrecognized until his death. The two stories connect subtly, making us question whether the artist’s story is actually just a figure of George’s imagination.
The lines between reality and fantasy and past and present are blurred in How to be Both, to such an extent where it stops being important when one ends and the other begins. Passages seem to jump from one moment in time to another, from purgatory to real life, as well as the occasional poetic excerpts. At first this made reading difficult – I looked for a linear structure in hopes of being able to see a beginning, a middle and an end. However, this wasn’t Smith’s intention with this book. It is a puzzle which as a reader you are expected to solve, making your own connections and conclusions as you progress along the narrative.
Once you get past the slightly jarred narrative, the ideas are indeed very clever. Issues of gender and sexuality are explored in both stories. George is a girl but goes by a boy’s name, and her feelings towards her friend Helena are briefly addressed, to no concrete resolution. Meanwhile, Francescho was born a girl but lives as a man. His paintings leave people wondering about the gender of those represented in them – and as George’s mother points out, it doesn’t, in fact, matter.
Although the novel may take some getting used to, it offers a lot of insight to our world, making the reader believe that in order to understand ourselves and the world we live in, we need to accept and understand our past. The essence of the book is that everything in this world is in someway connected, even though we may not see it, and this is something we can take away and apply to our own lives.
Featured image from culturefly.co.uk.