Author: Ali Smith, 2014.
Genre: Historical Fiction/Contemporary. Literary. Art. GLBT themes.
Other Details: Hardback. 372 pages.
'How to be both' is a novel all about art's versatility. Borrowing from painting's fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it's a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There's a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There's the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real - and all life's givens get given a second chance. - synopsis from UK publisher's website.
This novel was published in two formats. In half of the editions the story of Francesco del Cossa, an artist in 15th-century Ferrara, comes first and in the other half the story of George, a teenage girl living in present-day Cambridge coming to terms with the recent death of her mother, is first. My edition had Francesco's story first though Ali Smith has said it does not matter in which order the parts are read. In the novel she explores the nature of art as well as the fluidity of gender.
My initial impressions were not favourable and the first few pages left me feeling that I was not going to enjoy this. I am not a great fan of stream-of-consciousness and even more so when it involves a 15th century painter as the anachronisms made it clear that Smith was not attempting to create a sense of the period. However, despite this shaky start I was soon drawn in by the beauty of her lyrical writing. I was happier with the second part set in 2014.
There is a great deal about art in the novel, especially of the Renaissance period, and that held my attention. There is one scene in which George visits a gallery to view a painting by the artist featured in the first section that captured perfectly the experience of spending quality time with a work of art.
Overall, I found myself pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the novel once past those opening pages and letting go of my expectations about historical fiction. It was indeed a novel that was playful in terms of its structure and I may well re-read.