Ali Smith’s latest novel was longlisted for the Booker before it was even published. Earlier this week, it was announced that How to be Both had made the shortlist, the third of her novels to do so. It should come as no surprise. Like most of her work, it has the individuality and uniqueness that the Booker is meant to represent. It is a novel in two parts. One focuses on George, a young girl who is dealing with the loss of her mother and her burgeoning sexuality, and the other takes us through the life of Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure responsible for a series of striking paintings in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy. What makes this novel an ‘Ali Smith’ original is the fact that depending on which copy you pick off the shelf, you will read the story in a different order. Some will meet George first, others Francesco.
The two stories intertwine. If you begin with George, you will see her share conversations with her mother about Francesco’s paintings. If you start with Francesco, you’ll see his spirit returning to earth in the present day, watching a young girl obsess over his paintings in a gallery. That young girl is, of course, George. Constant readers of Smith will recognise this playfulness. They will also recognise a recent Smith motif. How to be Both in fact feels like a culmination of a trilogy when considered alongside Artful and Shire, her two most recent works. All three look at art and its importance, the way it can shape a life and be the emphasis behind a person’s development and even their daily existence. This latest work, in the switching of narratives, also makes a point about the versatility of art and the meanings that our own situations impose on works we really know little about.
Smith being Smith, though, she doesn’t make these points in a drab and predictable fashion. In the George section of the novel, she presents some of her best story-telling to date. Returning to themes of grief, sexuality, and difficult adolescence, she paints a character so intriguing and likable that some readers may feel a little disappointed when her section ends. She uses ideas of photography and modern technology to take a fresh look at how the modern age deals with its difficulties. In the Francesco section, the storytelling is maybe a little looser. The idea of the interlinked stories and the attempt to show how different the original meanings of art may be from our interpretations seems to take over, meaning the plot loses out. But there are still moments of wonder and prose of the highest order, and Smith deserves praise for her research into this little known artist. Honestly, though, the focus on versatility and duality does make Francesco’s tale seem less successful than George’s.
Any Cop?: When half of a novel is so good that you’re upset to see it end, that has to be a good sign. That the other doesn’t quite live up to the same standards is a disappointment, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that Smith’s less successful writing is still more original, thought-provoking, and intelligent than many of her contemporaries. Throughout this work she deals with important themes in a way that nobody else would dream of. It may not be her very best novel, but it must still be in with a shout of giving her a first Booker prize. It’d be about bloody time.