Garlanded with prizes and short listings, Ali Smith’s latest novel How to be both (London: Penguin, 2015) is one to savour. Smith tells two stories that co-exist within the cover of the book and are coeval as narratives despite, at first sight, being set six centuries apart. But that should be no problem for a novelist; certainly not a novelist of Ali Smith’s capabilities. Her stories are meant to complement each other and, sure enough, the sum of the parts becomes greater than the whole.
Between the two stories there are parallels: motherless young protagonists, George and Francesco, introspective and coming to know and understand themselves; a love of artistic expression; and a need to overcome life’s inevitable injustices.
The difference in the two narrative voices adds light and shade to the texture. The voice of the 21st century is that of a teenager still vividly recalling a lost mother and still talking with her, as only a precocious, tech-savvy teenager can these days. The late mother had a passions for a particular Italian artist part of whose work is reproduced on the inside front and back covers of the book. The narrative is simultaneously in both past and present. The contrasts and contradictions are perfectly caught and ring so very true.
The young 15th century artist has a different voice that describes the trials and travails of a painter of frescoes, a hired brush available to decorate the ducal walls of Ferrara and other Renaissance Italian cities. The artist too has a secret which some guess intuitively and which is slowly revealed to the reader. The artist is also long dead, which is not surprising given the lapse of time and the many more hazards to life in the 15th century. Even so, in a magically realist way, Ali Smith brings the painter to life after death.
The reader involvement and satisfaction is multiplied by the parallels and contrasts between the two narrators. That satisfaction is heightened by Smith’s use of stimulating language and the styles of the two narratives; perfectly chosen.
Since several dozen eminent critics called it their book of the year in 2014, I expected great things and, right through the book, I found them.