“How to be both” by Ali Smith



Smith’s latest novel plays freely with time, language, and narrative voice, but contains unpretentious pathos amidst its experimentation. Its rambling halves tell the respective stories of George, a girl in modern-day London trying to cope with the death of her mother, and Francescho, a brickmaker’s daughter in 15th century Italy who’s disguised herself as a man to pursue a career as a court painter. The two are linked by a bizarre but effective plot device: Francescho observes George through one of her (largely neglected) paintings hanging in a gallery. (It would be inaccurate to label the halves “first” or “second;” they appear in either order in different copies.) Smith and her characters are attentive to the triumphs and vagaries of the creative process, particularly how a work of art can survive and be celebrated in a way an artist herself can’t. Smith also portrays the pain of her characters’ losses, as when a young Francescho crawls into her late mother’s trunk, with “the kirtle and sleeves and everything empty of her still smelling of her.…Over time the smell of her faded, or my knowing of it lessened.” Exuberant if occasionally muddled, How to be both is ultimately a compelling portrait of relationships across the veils of time and death.

–Available December 2nd from Pantheon


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