It’s hard to think of a book that’s garnered more critical acclaim than Ali Smith’s ‘How to be Both’. I think it says a lot about my admiration for Smith that it never actually occurred to me that her novel might not live up to the hype!
I’ve known about the clever trickery of the book long before I opened my copy (there are two parts to the novel, and different copies begin with either the earlier or the later section). I had expected post-modern games, dazzling intelligence and ambitious complexity; ‘How to be Both’ delivers all of these, but I also found it Smith’s most accessible novel to date. My edition began with the later time frame, a third person narrative about the young George coming to terms with her mother’s death. It is wonderful. For all of the structural fireworks going on behind the scenes, the language is clear, precise and compelling, forgoing games in favour of character. I believed in George as a literary construct and I also believed in her as a person. So many writers like having overly-literate protagonists, the kind of characters who comment on verb-subject agreement and extemporise on Latin root words. I’d almost put it top of my list of pet-peeves, but Smith has shown me that I was being narrow minded. The intelligent, articulate and precocious George may have just become one of my favourite fictional adolescents.
I’m probably going to be using the word ‘clever’ a lot in this review, because I really feel it’s the best adjective to describe this book, but there needs to be some word-analysis of my own to justify its use. ‘Clever’ of course means intelligent, but it also covers emotional intelligence, the knowledge of when to share and when to stay silent. It means that the structure may be the tightest of any novel I’ve ever read, but the continual references between the two sections serve to aid the plot and add depth rather than simply to show off. Take what could be read as a manifesto for the novel, on the first pages on the book: ‘Now it’s January, to be precise it’s just past midnight on New Year’s Eve, which means it has just become the year after the year in which George’s mother died…This will be the first year her mother hasn’t been alive since the year her mother was born. That is so obvious it is stupid even to think about it and yet so terrible that you can’t not think about it. Both at once’. Language is used to demonstrate the limitations of language, attempting to express a depth of grief than cannot be comprehended, even by those feeling it. There is a strong sense of time and the subjectivity of time, how it is marked by individuals so that each passing minute becomes a momento mori, a step back towards memory and a step forward towards the inevitable. There is a layering of language, the ‘obvious‘ becomes ‘stupid’ becomes ‘terrible’ until it’s impossible to see the original adjective without being aware of its mutation. Oh, and there’s that word ‘both’. This is a novel of two halves and once you’ve read one, the second lies on top of it. It’s more than the circular topping and tailing I had almost expected, instead the stories are like transparencies that can be laid over each other, each bringing out new themes, tones and nuances in the other.
For a book that’s all about looking, surveillance and art, the novel also exposes the limitations of sight and perception. There is a strong thread of sexuality running through both stories and it is a novel that’s all about relationships between women, but every single sexual encounter took me by surprise. This wasn’t a ‘but I didn’t know she was gay’ kind of surprise, just that Smith has once again subverted how love is normally narrated and made it messy and human, less novelistic but much closer to real life. By the way, did you know that ‘George’ was a girl? I hope it’s not a spoiler, but it’s the kind of gender game that develops through both narratives.
The second story (though it’s really hard to talk about chronology in this context, it might be your first) is about the renaissance painter Francescho del Cossa. It’s a wonderful combination of research and imagination, Smith’s academic background work worn lightly as she brings the past to life. While George’s story is resolutely contemporary (there’s cyber-bullying, surveillance and George is never without her ipad) Fransescho’s narrative plays off these themes. I have to be honest, for me, this felt like more of a supplemental story, but that is probably because I enjoyed the first so much … or maybe it’s what Smith had in mind. It’s incredibly how successful the experimental structure of ‘How to be Both’ really is.
‘How to be Both’ is a truly outstanding novel, ambitious yet accessible, cerebral yet heartfelt. This year I’ve loved ‘A God in Every Stone‘, and ‘Outline’ which were also on the Bailey’s shortlist, but I can really see why this book won. For all of the current issues around gender inequality in publishing and awards, Smith, Shamsie and Cusk show that contemporary English language fiction has never been better and the very best of what’s out there is written by and about women.