How to Be Both by Ali Smith
This ambitious novel twists strands of tales together like the DNA double helix molecule that symbolises the story. The first half concerns Francesco del Cossa in an out of body experience – she may be dead, but she doesn’t remember dying; perhaps this is purgatory? She is drawn to a girl who is looking at her painting in an art gallery. The second half concerns George, the girl from the gallery, trying to cope with the death of her mother, Carol, who became obsessed with the unknown painter of frescoes in Ferrara, Italy and took her daughter there to see them in situ.
The halves of the novel are both numbered One; half of the books are printed with George’s story first and Francesco’s second. They can be read in either order because everything is connected, and all things overlap. Sitting in an Italian piazza and discussing the prevalence of over-painting images, George’s mother asks her, “Which came first? The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?” George says the picture underneath, of course. “But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?”
These palimpsests become a metaphor for life. Francesco is really a girl, but disguised as a boy so that she can have a career as an artist. Pictures record things past their death; they capture immortality. Carol was an art activist, “It was her job to subvert political things with art things, and to subvert art things with political things.”
After her mother’s death, George feels as though her life has been split into two entirely separate halves. “That before and after thing is about mourning, is what people keep saying.” She discovers a woman with whom Carol had a relationship, and George stalks and photographs her every day. She recalls how her mother used to think she was being spied upon and ‘Minotaur-ed’; was she just being paranoid? Or is this the self-enveloping effect of time’s continuum? Both art and surveillance involve watching and being watched, and there is always more going on than meets the eye. Carol taught George, “Nothing’s not connected. And we don’t live on a flat surface.” History is ever-present and the weight of all this connectivity can be oppressive.
The novel is a complex work of meaning and metaphor: a classic story of love and loss, told in a fresh and modern way. Both genre and gender bending, this is a work of parallel universes, palimpsests, fluid time and space, paranoia and mystery – almost too clever by half, and certainly challenging, but definitely memorable.