How to Be Both is a delightful novel from the very start, beginning with its format. The book is split into two sections, and is published in such a way that either half may come first.
This innovation adds a random element to how a reader will experience the novel and sets the playful tone of what is to come.
The half which I encountered first, told the story of deceased and almost forgotten 14th century fresco painter Francesco Del Cossa, a real historical figure.
The ghost of the post-mortal painter first appears on the page in a stream of consciousness which eventually stabilises as she recollects who she is.
In Ali Smith’s telling Francesco is really a Francesca who takes on a male identity so that she may pursue her dream of becoming a painter.
We hear her recount her childhood as the daughter of a stonemason, and we watch as she develops into an renowned artist, pursues patronage, and eventually observe her untimely demise.
Francesca is a charming narrator who is hard to resist. As a character she is utterly convincing and has a personality which suits the paintings attributed to her.
Smith’s ekphrasistic elucidation of Del Cossa’s work creates an appetite in the reader to go and see the pictures described for themselves.
The paintings serve to link both parts of the novel as does the ghost of Francesca.
Throughout the telling of her tale, the ghostly Francesca describes a girl who she is observing who turns out to be the thoroughly modern teenager George. George is the protagonist of the second part of the book in the form which I encountered it.
George has recently lost her mother and lives with her family who aren’t coping well. I found this sudden switch in perspective a little jarring at first having been so taken by Francesca, but soon settled in.
George is an unforgiving grammar pedant who is devastated when her Mother dies, leaving her to live with her terrified younger brother and unreliable father who has taken to the bottle.
The precociously intelligent George struggles through the shock of her mother’s sudden departure, navigating the disorienting maze of well-meaning adults and their unasked for sympathy.
As George recounts her memories of her mother and tries to construct some sort of meaning in her sudden departure she relates her mother’s enthusiasm for the work of a certain Francesco Del Cossa, now made male by history.
George’s delivery from grief comes in the form of friendship, when she meets a kindred spirit at school. The two become firm friends and their interaction brings relief to George. The character of George convincingly conveys the worldview of an acidly intelligent, yet ultimately vulnerable, teenager to life.
The novel itself is as clever as its two protagonists. Befitting its structure it features two covers. One a detail from a fresco by Del Cossa, The other an iconic depiction of Francoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan.
As characters in the novel repeatedly referred to these cover images I found myself repeatedly flipping the book over to scrutinise them.
Hats off to Ali Smith for contriving a way to write a passage involving a spectral fourteenth century fresco painter describing the Hardy, Vartan photo. What a stroke of giddy genius./p>
Cleverness also abounds at the end of George’s story, when we discover she is writing a school assignment on empathy.
To do this she has decided to write it in the character of Francesco/Francesca Del Cossa which may or may not be the genesis of the Francesca narrative. I myself prefer the supernatural explanation.
The novel satisfies on the level of narrative but there is so much more to it than that. Its form is a wonderful commentary on art itself and its manifold possibilities. It is an act of elegant bricolage which shows how structure and ideas are a re-combinable set of possibilities without end. On top of this How to Be Both, achieves the dazzling feat of being terribly clever without being irritating.