Ali Smith’s 2014 Man Booker-shortlisted How to be Both brims with life, layering narratives to create a funny, harrowing and genuine story. This is a book in two parts, both entitled “One”. They are two stories about two individuals from completely different, yet intersecting worlds: a “child of a child of the 1960s”, grief-fuelled and raging; and an artist of the 1460s, smart, talented, and lost. They are cleverly interwoven, there is humour in their observances, there is a patterning and commonality in their own concerns. This is a book completely deserving of the description “well-crafted”.
While this book was en route to me courtesy of Book Depository, I read this: half of the print run of How to be Both had one part printed first and the other had, well, the other part printed first. They were interchangeable. The book that you read was the luck of the draw: a draw that had been decided for me as my book was already in transit. This is an interesting idea, and one that does not normally appeal: often these literary or linguistic games are a distraction, and obfuscate the story itself. But, already paid for, when the book arrived I dove in.
George is grieving. She is smart but wasted, not at home at home and trying to find her place. Francescho del Cossa is the child of a brick maker, a talented painter, and a forgotten genius. Franchescho wakes in purgatory, lost but not alone, alien but completely a part of the world he is in.
In her loss, George’s story is compelled by routine; habits to structure her day and remember her mother. Her narrative is threaded through with memories of the trip to Italy she, her mother and her younger brother made a few months before she died. Inspired by an article on a newly-discovered 15th Century fresco, her mother whisks them away to see it with their own eyes.
And half way through the book, at the beginning of part “One”, Francescho wakes to “pergatorium”, confused, not alive, and not in his world. Francescho is inexplicably attached to George, the same way George compulsively attaches herself to Francescho’s art centuries later (and yet, at the same time). We learn of Francescho’s life through flashbacks, bobbing in and out of his own contemporary purgatory.
An attempt to undertake a typical plot summary here does not work. The story does not reveal itself sequentially, but instead is coloured in. Time is timeless, yet their individual experiences are so utterly distinct. Their worlds lie over the others’, telling us more about them than they do themselves. And of course, there is a 50 per cent chance that the edition you read will be the reverse of mine, and a final puzzle piece for me will just be the beginning of the story.
The more I think about it, the more I can see how similar the narratives of George and Francescho are: deftly, subtly, their lives echo between the centuries. Normally a trope like this can irritate, but it’s only now I realise how crafted and significant the similarities are. Themes of eyes, seeing and meaning; the value of art – literally and figuratively; boy/girls; how and why we haunt; loss and being lost; dip in and out of the stories, simultanously making sense and not making sense, depending on whose story you read first. We are deliciously, sometimes hilariously, sometimes frustratingly, restricted by our narrators’ worlds; and yet more is revealed to us than they could ever understand. There is a joy in discovery in this book, sparked by moments of recognition and satisfaction.
Francescho’s narration genuinely made me laugh out loud; I found George’s world so isolated, so bereft, but there was a compulsion to her actions which transferred into the narrative. I wonder how others who have read it in the opposite order have found it: to me George was so alone, and was given more life and colour through Francescho’s eyes. Conversely, would someone who read Francescho’s narration first had seen their loneliness? Would George’s story add to their life retrospectively the same way? I enjoyed Francescho’s voice more than George’s, but I was still somehow captured and compelled by George. Would the reverse be true if I had received a different edition?
My experience with George’s part “One” stopped me, and made me think, but this rush of feeling I have for the book came through as more and more was revealed. At first I thought that each part was a short story, individual and self-sufficient, but as I tore through Francescho’s narration, the whole crafted world was revealed.
This is such an intelligent, entertaining book, so worth diving into. It challenges genre and structure, and utilises the timelessness and versatility of art to tell the story of two people caught up in it all. The confusion is worth it, the double-take is beautiful, and the conversation is ageless.