How to be both

By Ali Smith

(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 384 pages)

Who is this author?

Ali Smith, a Scottish author who now lives in England and is one of the most admired (and honored) writers in the United Kingdom (and for that matter, in the entire literary world), has published eight previous works of fiction and has won many major awards.  Her books include the novel Hotel World, short-listed for the Orange Prize and Booker Prize and winner of the Encore Award and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award, and The Accidental, winner of the Whitbread Award and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. Her story collections include Free Love, which won a Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award and a Scottish Arts Council Award, and The Whole Story and Other Stories.

What is this book about?

It’s about art, love, injustice, the Renaissance, the 20th century, the twisting of time and the bending of genres and genders.  Smith’s latest has been called “a literary double-take,” and was shortlisted for three big awards: the 2015 Women’s Prize for Fiction, the 2014 Man Booker Prize and the 2015 Folio Prize, and it won the 2014 Costa Novel Award and the Goldsmiths Prize. It’s a complicated book to explain but a delight to read. Here is how Publisher’s Weekly describes the novel structure of this challenging novel in its starred review:

“This [is an] inventive double novel that deals with gender issues, moral questions, the mystery of death, the value of art, the mutability of time, and several other important topics. Two books coexist under the same title, each presenting largely the same material arranged differently and with different emphases; which narrative one reads first depends on chance, as different copies of the book have been printed with different opening chapters. In one version, the androgynous adolescent character George (for Georgia) is mourning the sudden death of her mother following a family trip to Italy, where they viewed a painting by the obscure Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa. The alternate volume begins with Francesco, recounting stories of the painter’s youth and the ongoing creation of a fresco in a palazzo in Ferrara, a process described in vibrant detail. Francesco’s secret is disclosed in both sections—teasingly in one, overtly in the other. The narratives are captivating, challenging, and often puzzling, as the prose varies among contemporary vernacular English, archaic 15th-century rhetoric interposed with fragments of poetry, and unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness narration. Clever puns and word games abound. George’s mother accurately identifies the subtext when she says, “Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.” Smith’s two-in-one novel is a provocative reevaluation of the form.”

Why you’ll like it:

Smith lets her imagination soar in the structure and content of this book, and readers get to go along on this literary flight. She is a wonder at creating dialogue, which rings true no matter which century its speakers happen to be inhabiting.  Nothing is ordinary about this book, from its characters to its settings to its plots and especially, to its clever writing and provocative explorations of love, death, art and identity.

What others are saying:

“Playfully brilliant. . . . Fantastically complex and incredibly touching. . . . This gender-blending, genre-blurring story, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, bounces across centuries, tossing off profound reflections on art and grief, without getting tangled in its own postmodern wires. It’s the sort of death-defying storytelling acrobatics that don’t seem entirely possible. . . . [A] swirling, panoramic vision of two women’s lives, separated by more than 500 years, impossibly connected by their fascination with the mystery of existence,” says Ron Charles in The Washington Post.

Says Heller McAlpin for NPR: “Can a book be both linguistically playful and dead serious? Structurally innovative and reader-friendly? Mournful and joyful? Brainy and moving? Ali Smith’s How to be both, which recently won the prestigious, all-Brit two-year-old Goldsmiths prize for being a truly novel novel, is all of the above—and then some. . . . Smith, whose books include The Accidental, There But For The, and the essay collection Artful, has outdone herself with How to be both. . . . To say that there’s more than meets the eye in this terrific book is a gross understatement; it encompasses wonderful mothers, unconventional love and friendship, time, mortality, gender, the consolations of art and so much else. . . . Once again, Smith’s affinity for beguiling oddballs and the pertly precocious rivals J.D Salinger’s. . . . [A] gloriously inventive novel. . . . Ingeniously conceived.”

“Ali Smith is a genius. . . . Smith, who was born and raised in Inverness, continues a Scottish literary tradition, whose practitioners include James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson, Muriel Spark, Alan Warner, and James Robertson, of tearing a rent in the scrim between the physical and the metaphysical worlds to allow a stranger, or an other to slip through. Her willingness to embrace the supernatural, when taken in conjunction with her acrobatic language, wit, philosophical bent, and her overarching obsession with form, also places her within that select British modernist sisterhood alongside such doyennes as Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter, Beryl Bainbridge, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Iris Murdoch. . . . [How to be both] cements Smith’s reputation as one of the finest and most innovative of our contemporary writers. By some divine alchemy, she is both funny and moving; she combines intellectual rigor with whimsy. . . . If we think of time as Smith would have us do, we do not become older but deeper; no one is ever gone, and nothing is ever lost, that cannot be found again, if sought, ” says Susan McCallum in The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Library Journal’s starred review says: “ What if an Italian Renaissance painter were to drop down to Earth and observe the mysterious modern world—specifically, the world of one bright, young Cambridge girl in the wake of a recent family tragedy? This is the premise of Smith’s bold new novel—actually two novels (Eyes and Camera) in one. Camera is set in the present, when George (Georgia) is grieving the loss of her mother, a feminist art and culture critic, who liked to challenge George about the meaning of art and life, and who became so intrigued by the work of Italian artist Francesco del Cossa that she spirited her children off to Italy to view his frescoes (only recently uncovered beneath later paintings) in their natural setting. Francesco’s story (Eyes) covers his friendship with the boy who grew up to become his benefactor and patron, as well as his early art training and his work on the grand palazzo walls. VERDICT Two versions of the book will be available: one beginning with the artist’s story, the other with George’s—and readers won’t know which they will be reading first until they open their particular book. The order in which the stories are read will surely color the reader’s experience of the whole. Which version is the preferred? And “how to be both”—seen and unseen, past and present, male and female, alive and dead, known and unknown? In a work short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, Smith presents two extraordinary books for the price of one.”

Kirkus says in its starred review: “This adventurous, entertaining writer offers two distinctive takes on youth, art and death—and even two different editions of the book. George, short for Georgia, is 16, whip-smart and seeking ways to honor her dead mother. She vows to dance the twist every day, as her mother did, and to wear something black for a year. She also inhabits a memory, a visit to Italy they made together to view a 15th-century mural her mother admired, and studies a painting by the same artist in London’s National Gallery. There, she sees a woman her mother knew and tries to study her as well. In the book’s other half, the ghost of the 15th-century artist pushes up through the earth to the present and finds himself in the museum behind George as she studies his painting and just before she spots the mystery woman. The painter’s own memories travel through his youth and apprenticeship in a voice utterly different from and as delightful as George’s. He—though gender is bending here too—also loses his mother when young and learns, like George, of the pain and joy of early friendship. He provides an intimate history for the mural in Italy and offers a very foreign take on George and modern times. The book is being published simultaneously in two editions—one begins with George’s half, and the other begins with the painter’s, which might be slightly more challenging for its diction and historical trappings. Both are remarkable depictions of the treasures of memory and the rich perceptions and creativity of youth, of how we see what’s around us and within us. Comical, insightful and clever, builds a thoughtful fun house with her many dualities and then risks being obvious in her structural mischief, but it adds perhaps the perfect frame to this marvelous diptych.”

When is it available?

This book – perhaps the version that begins with George, or the version that begins with Francesco – is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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