A tireless, genre-flaying innovator in her fiction (and even her non-fiction, as 2012’s Artful showed), Scotland’s Ali Smith continues to up her own bar. Her latest, Man Booker-shortlisted novel, How to Be Both, presents as a kind of narrative diptych: half is told from the present-day point of view of Georgia (or George), a London teen coping with the recent death of her mother, the other from the perspective of the (real) Italian Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa who, in Smith’s imagining, is a cross-dressing female who rechristens herself “Francescho.”
That might sound sufficiently boundary-pushing, yet it’s not what makes this book so unusual. Smith and her publisher, Penguin, have produced two versions, one beginning with George’s story, the other with Francescho’s. When you buy it (particularly if you do so online) you don’t know, like the prize in a Crackerjack box, which one you’re going to get. Gimmicky? Perhaps, but it’s definitely not cynical; after all, you don’t need to shell out for both versions to experience the intended effect.
George and Francesco are not, like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, epoch-spanning incarnations of the same person, but their lives do have obvious parallels. George’s father works for a roofing company, Francescho’s is a builder of walls; both are gay (anachronistic though the term is in Francescho’s case); both have feisty, intelligent mothers who encourage them to think deeply, and who die young.
Both of the stories have a mystery attached. Few details of Francesc(h)o’s life have passed to posterity, including the meaning of his (or her) murals, and how and when (s)he died. The circumstances around George’s mother’s death are also unclear, and potentially more nefarious. George is chary of the official explanation that it was caused by an allergic reaction: shortly before she died her mother, a journalist and poverty activist famous for the online guerilla art movement she founded, had been sure she was being spied on.
The two tales even merge physically at times. In my version—fronted by George’s story—this first happens when George’s mother takes the family to Italy to see the allegorical frescoes Francescho painted for an Italian nobleman’s pleasure palace. Later, as a private tribute to her mother, George goes daily to the National Gallery to contemplate Francescho’s portrait of St. Vincent de Ferrer.
While Francescho’s work offers George a kind of portal into the painter’s world, to make her conceit work the other way Smith relies on an elaborate magic realism in which the disembodied painter suddenly “awakens” and is able to observe George (whom she mistakes at first for a boy) in the gallery and even follow her around in the streets as if they were tethered together.
To offset the credulity load of this, Smith uses humour ranging from Francescho’s amusing, if occasionally corny, time-travellers’ observances (taking peoples’ digital devices to be “holy votive tablets,” she speculates: “they must be heavy in their despairs to be so consistently looking away from their world and so devoteder bou to their icons”), to the outright cutesy (Francescho often uses the phrase “just saying”). Personally, I was happy to get past the awkwardness of the transitions and delve fully into Smith’s entertaining, thorough imagining of the frescoes’ backstory.
Smith has always been passionate about the power of art, but she’s also always ready to call it a game—an approach that strikes me as deeply reasonable. Part of the point she seems to be making in How to Be Both is that art isn’t a closed circuit: just knowing an alternate version of the novel exists is enough to make us reconsider its content and meaning. It’s hard not to think Smith is referring to herself when Francescho describes the techniques she acquired from the fresco painters that preceded her, namely: “how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it up-rising through the skin of it.”
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor