Ali Smith’s newest novel can be read one of two ways. George, a teenage girl in contemporary Britain has to deal with the death of her mother, and reminisces about a trip to Italy she took with her where her mum fell in love with the paintings of one renaissance artist in particular, Francesco del Cossa. In another story, that same renaissance painter watches George believing herself to be in some sort of purgatory. Both George and Francesco are seen as both men and women by others. And the novel can be read from the perspective of either George or Francesco.
This is a difficult novel to explain, but it isn’t difficult to read. George is treated so sensitively by Smith; George is intelligent and sarcastic and struggling to comprehend her mother’s death. She is precocious and cagey; she is scared. Her father starts drinking heavily after her mother’s death, and George is left to look after her little brother Henry a lot of the time. Contemporary issues are examined too: including contemporary obsessions with smartphones and iPads, as seen by the protagonist from renaissance Italy.
And watching her is Francesco, who comments on George’s magical tablet. Francesco details her life: her mother died young too, and her father told her to pretend to be a boy so that she could become an artist. Francesco’s Italian renaissance life is evocatively told. She doesn’t speak in an archaic language, but she can’t understand the language that George speaks. She watches George looking at her painting. There are no real beginnings and ends in this story (or middles!), so it might not be for some people.
Smith is doing exciting things with the format of the novel in this book. I am especially drawn to her sensitivity: her willingness to be kind to her characters and the small things she picks up on make her one of the best contemporary writers, in my opinion. I like fiction that is mysterious and not a foregone conclusion. Smith handles her characters and her original storytelling with ease and eloquence. Her characters occupy murky worlds, much like our own.
I loved this book. I’ve only read one Ali Smith book prior to this, Hotel World, which was in a similar vein; playful yet looking closely at people’s thoughts, particularly regarding death. I really need to read more of Smith, particularly her short stories. How to be Both isn’t for everybody, but it is certainly for me!