In the latest edition of the online literary magazine The Bottle Imp various people were asked to name their best books of 2014, and although there were a lot of really good books this year (see Five Alive: The Best Fiction of 2014… for just a small selection), Ali Smith’s How To Be Both was the outstanding choice for me, so much so that now I come to write a full review of it I find it difficult.
I once wrote an appreciation of The Blue Nile album Hats for the sadly defunct Word magazine, and found that almost impossible due to the fondness I have for the record. It’s something to do with wanting, or needing, to do the thing you have come to love critical justice. It deserves your best. I’ve read How To Be Both twice now, and before 2015 is out I know I’ll go back for a third time. This is partly because it can be read in a number of ways, but it is mainly because, like all the best art, it gives up something new and exciting every time.
Doubling and division are often overplayed in Scottish writing, or at least in discussions about it, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss these themes or take them for granted. Each book should, ideally, be taken on its own merit. In this case duality is central to the novel’s very construction as Smith plays with readers in a manner reminiscent of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark where the contents are set out of order (Books 3, 1, 2 & 4 respectively) allowing for literally different readings of the book. How To Be Both has two different stories, ‘Eyes’ and ‘Camera’, (the idea of watching and being watched are of huge importance), and it will depend on the copy you have as to the order in which you will read them, at least initially, as half the print run starts with one story, half with the other. The fact that these stories are interconnected, and that read both ways the connection remains, just goes to highlight Smith’s mastery of narrative structure. This is showing off in the most impressive manner, gleefully challenging readers’ perceptions of the novel as a form.
To get an idea as to just how much that unusual premise affects readings you only have to look at a selection of the reviews the book has received, which place the importance of one story over the other depending on what was read first. My copy starts with ‘Eyes’ which is based on the life of 15th century Italian Renaissance artist Francescho del Cossa, and it is the most poetic and artful (to pinch the title of another Smith book) of the two. This is the tale I fell in love with, and I would have been happy if the whole novel told Francescho’s story (and I know other reviewers who started with ‘Camera’ felt similarly about their ‘first’ reading) but Smith finishes one story to begin another, and although there may be initial disappointment in this change, you should trust the author as the second story enriches the first, and vice-versa, no matter in which order they are read. Both are delightfully interwoven and the one is as essential as the other.
‘Camera’ is written in the present day and is the story of George, a teenage girl who is trying to come to terms with the death of her mother, and it is perhaps more recognisably ‘Ali Smith’, reminding me of her novella Girl Meets Boy in particular. The two central characters of each story are linked in many interesting ways. George’s ambigendrous name is no coincidence as matters of gender and sexuality are explored, favourite topics for Smith, and the title of the novel also hints at this. Francescho is born a girl, but decides to live as a man leading to her own questions of identity. The scenes in the brothel where she paints the working women to avoid sleeping with them in a desperate attempt to conceal her gender are some of the most memorable, and they also hint at the central theme of How To Be Both, if such a multifaceted book can be said to have one; namely, ‘What is art?’
Or perhaps, more specifically, ‘What’s the point of art?’, a question George asks when she is taken to see Francescho’s frescoes by her mother shortly before her death. The answer to George’s query is on every page of How To Be Both as art challenges and changes characters’ lives, aiding understanding of the self and of others, healing wounds and mending divisions. Art doesn’t work without the complicated mess that is the human condition to inspire its creation and give it meaning. The George who asks the question ‘What’s the point of art?’ has art waiting for her when she needs it.
How To Be Both has everything I desire in a novel. It is a delight on a sensual and an intellectual level, stimulating the parts most books simply can’t reach. Once you get used to the at times dazzling nature of the settings, the sights and the sounds, you begin to consider questions about the nature of what it means to live, to exist, to belong yet be your self. It examines life from cradle to grave, and beyond; not in a spiritual sense but by considering what we leave behind. All of this is done with the lightest and most playful of literary touches, meaning not only can the novel be read inside out and back to front, but on any level you wish to do so. What you get out depends on how deeply you want to dive in.
I tend to be a bit of a completest anyway, but I can honestly tell you that everything Smith has had published is worth reading. Sometimes we can get too obsessed with different types of writing, but the best tend to be the best no matter what the form. Smith has proved to be a master of her craft. From 1995’s short story collection Free Love and Other Stories to last year’s collection of essays, Artful, and the semi-autobiographical Shire (a collaboration with her partner, the filmmaker Sarah Wood) there is not a word out of place or used without thought. Even with her recent retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, Smith applies her own style and personality. As with the aforementioned Alasdair Gray, Smith’s work and life seem inseparable, something she appears to take great joy and pleasure in, but which she also considers with the utmost seriousness and gravity, and that is as good a definition of a life well lived as I can think of. How To Be Both is a novel to take your breath away, making you think and feel as never before, and surely that is the point of art, after all.