Ali Smith’s How to be both (2014), is a novel in two halves. One tells the story of George, a sixteen-year-old girl coping with the death of her mother, funnelling grief into ‘60s dance routines, memories of a family trip to Italy, and her friendship with a classmate, Helena, known simply as H. The other half follows Francesco, a renaissance painter, who finds his disembodied self dragged through time to the twenty-first century, to watch George, while reflecting on his life. In some copies of the book, George’s story comes first; in others, it is Francesco’s. It is a skilfully-written and fascinating novel, one that both moved and intrigued me.
The writing is simply suburb. It is perhaps not for everybody – at times it is unconventional, at times a little difficult to follow. There are no speech marks in either narrative, allowing thought, action and speech to run into one another. Francesco’s narrative is more puzzling than George’s, his memories of the past and his visions of the present interweaving, often without clear distinctions. However, Smith’s writing style is very effective. While making use of stream-of-consciousness techniques, the book is by no means as dense or alienating as, say, Will Self’s Umbrella; after a few pages I got used to the style and was thoroughly engaged in the book. Moreover, the writing thoroughly enriches the stories and characters, giving us a much more personal insight into the minds of both George and Francesco.