Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Books – How to be both, by Ali Smith

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.

In my copy, it is George’s narrative that comes first, then Francesco’s. The strangest thing is, I literally cannot imagine the book the other way around; I can’t see it working as well – it feels so perfect and right as it is. I am curious to know if those who read the book the other way around feel the same; it would be an even stronger sign of Smith’s skill and success if this is the case. As it is, I think I am probably glad I read it as I did; although I ultimately loved both sections of the book, I did find George’s more immediately compelling. Francesco’s narrative is more distinctly stream-of-consciousness in style, and I found it much less easy to follow than George’s; however, once I had got used to it and became more interested in Francesco’s character, life and complexities, I was as engaged by that half of the book as I was by George’s. I think, however, that if I had started with Francesco’s it might have taken me longer to get into the book. Regardless, I think Smith’s idea of having a novel in two reversible parts is a very interesting one, especially as How to be both is in many ways a book about breaking down binaries and dualisms – about how to be both past and present, male and female, one thing and another. The reading experience must be very different depending on which section you get first, and so How to be both is in a sense two different novels; the book itself encapsulates the art of being both.

It is in many ways a novel driven by its themes. Those of art, loss, grief, family, friendship – and of course, gender. We have George, a sixteen-year-old girl; her full name is Georgia, but she always goes by George, generally a male name. When Francesco is first pulled through to the twenty-first century, he mistakes George for a boy, because she has short hair and is wearing trousers. And then we have Francesco himself, an Italian Renaissance painter born biologically a woman, who becomes a man in name, dress, prospects and perhaps identity, in order to follow his dream of becoming a painter.  

Yet gender is by no means the only “binary” explored in How to be both. One of my favourite aspects of the book was its exploration of the intermingling of past and present. Of course Francesco’s narrative is key here: in his section of the book, his memories of his life in Renaissance Italy and what he sees in George’s twenty-first century mingle and weave together. I especially love his descriptions of modern behaviour – how people ‘all talk into their hands as they peripatate and all carry these votives, the size of a hand… dedicated to saints perhaps or holy folk.’ Moreover, the present and past interweave in George’s narrative too in a very clever and moving way. Both her current experiences, and her memories from before her mother’s death, are narrated in present tense, and the difference between what her mother ‘says’ and what her mother ‘said’ preoccupy George; making the space between present and past simultaneously feel both minute and gigantic.

In short, I highly recommend Ali Smith’s How to be both. It is a brilliantly written novel, with fascinating characters and deftly explored themes. It is not always an easy read, but it is a rewarding one, complex, thought-provoking, and highly moving.

Greatest strength: Probably the writing, and the idea itself.

Greatest weakness: As I said, it did take me a little while to get into the start of Francesco’s narrative.  

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.’

Click here to buy How to Be Both through my Foyles affiliate link.

Next week: will be a guest review by Chris King, of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

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