As a child, I used to love the Choose Your Own Adventure books – each one written in the second person, offering the reader a selection of alternative narratives according to which choices they made. Looking back at them now, tThey seem delightfully retro: a sort of prototype computer game constructed out of the only materials available at the time. Inevitably, they fell out of fashion with the rise of Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Thank goodness, then, for Ali Smith, who has come up with an adult version in her sixth novel. How to Be Both is not a multi-choice narrative, but the textual order depends on an element of chance. The book has two interconnected stories. There is a teenage girl called George whose mother has just died and who is left struggling to make sense of her death with her younger brother and her emotionally disconnected father. And then there is an Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure responsible for a series of striking frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.
Depending on which copy you pick up at random, you will either be presented with George’s story first or with Francesco’s. The two narratives twist around each other like complicated vines – one of George’s last trips with her mother was to see the Ferrara frescoes and del Cossa is haunted by strange visions of a teenage girl who uses “a votive tablet” and holds it to heaven “like a priest raising the bread”. The fact that this votive tablet is an iPad and that the reader is in on the joke while Francesco isn’t, is just one of the witty touches with which Smith splices the novel.
At its heart, How to Be Both, which has already been longlisted for the Man Booker prize, is an eloquent challenge to the binary notions governing our existence. Why, Smith seems to ask, should we expect a book to run from A to B, by way of a recognisable plot and subplot, peopled by characters who are easily understood to be one thing or another?
Smith’s characters revel in surprising us – George has a boy’s name but is a girl whose sexuality is only just being explored; Francesco is born a girl but binds her chest and lives as a man. When Francesco is taken to a brothel by a male friend, the artist declines to sleep with the prostitute but draws her instead. When, centuries later, George and her mother study del Cossa’s frescoes they cannot tell who is male and who is female. In the end, they decide it doesn’t matter. And when Francesco sees George for the first time, she assumes George is a boy, only to discover later that she had been mistaken.
In my version of How to Be Both, I got George’s story first. Her experience is acutely rendered by Smith who clearly remembers what it is to be a spikily intelligent teenage girl: lost without wanting to admit it. George’s mourning for her mother and her bafflement at how someone so loved can simply cease to exist is very moving and leads to a ceaseless examining of where the boundary lies between what is now and what was then.
This duality is at the core of the book: the dead coexist with the living and their stories intertwine, sometimes in ways that make no sense other than the poetic. When George is in Italy, she tells her mother she is “appalled by history, its only redeeming feature being that it tends to be well and truly over.”
Her mother counters with a series of questions: “Do things just go away? … Do things that happened not exist, or stop existing, just because we can’t see them happening in front of us?”
The joy of Smith’s playful take on conventional fictional form is that the reader understands the poignancy of this before the characters do. Because, of course, all of it is still happening – in remembering her mother, George is bringing her back to life and in looking at del Cossa’s frescoes, the artist, too, still lives and breathes through the work.
But in this textual hall of mirrors, nothing is certain. In George’s half of the book, she and her friend H have to design a school project on the topic of “empathy”. They decide to do it in the voice of Francesco del Cossa, reimagining his life. Could the Francesco section simply be a product of two imaginative teenage minds? The reader is left with the question hanging.
It’s a fascinating trick to play. Whether Smith manages to pull it off depends on what kind of reader you are.
The Francesco passages are littered with poetic fragments that pull the chronology forward and back and so out-of-shape that sometimes, it is difficult to know what is happening. But sentences like: “down to/that thin-looking line/made of nothing/ground and grit and the/gather of dirt and earth and/the grains of stone…” are undeniably beautiful, so does it matter if you can’t work out what’s happening?
Personally, I preferred George’s narrative and could have happily read an entire novel which consisted of a more conventional plotting of her story. I admired the Francesco passages rather than feeling engrossed by them and occasionally it felt as if Smith’s ideas were so clever they were in danger of getting in the way of the story.
But there is no doubt that Smith is dazzling in her daring. The sheer inventive power of her new novel pulls you through, gasping, to the final page.