How do you criticise a book that’s carried off the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and won over the discerning book crowd without sounding like a) a complete contrary person or b) a lower form of human being?
As far as reviews are concerned, the jury’s not out on Ali Smith’s How To Be Both – it’s a runaway success and no stranger to the five-star review. My experience, however, doesn’t dovetail quite so neatly with that view. Let’s be clear, it’s not that I disliked the book – in fact I think it’s brilliantly clever. My literary beef with reading Smith’s sixth novel was, well, that it’s a bit of a slog.
Undoubtedly Scottish-born Smith is a wordsmith of the highest order. But I don’t think I’m the only person to want to both doff my cap to her inventiveness and sigh with exhaustion at the page.
How to Be Both is split into two halves and depending on your copy it could start in the modern day section, following teenager Georgia, or George as she’s known, as she grapples with the sudden death of her mother, or in renaissance Italy which is narrated by Francesco del Cossa – or in reality Francesca – a painter who conceals her gender in order to work. Pulling off that sort of structure takes a sort of genius of its own and certainly makes you wonder how reverse reading might alter one’s view of the book.
Everyone’s spoken about the duality of the novel, its ability to pull off a remarkable pas de deux of both narratives. Smith’s sentences are loaded, finding connections between two people separated by time yet bonded by the search or suppression of identity, the endurance of art, and the impact of loss and love. Yet, like a piece of post-modernist art that feels many-layered and significant, it ultimately left me cold.
I began with the Italian section, and try as I might I stopped and started three times to fully digest the words. Within a few pages I felt deflated at the prospect of a laborious read. Francesco’s stream-of-consciousness and lack of punctuation felt like the words fluttered by and I had to wrestle them to the ground.
And yet the dichotomy is that the more I think about it afterwards, the more I appreciate it; How To Be Both is the book that keeps on giving. So, in the end does that make me a fan? Can’t I be an admirer of its literary achievements and a critique of its lack of emotive pull? I mean, can’t I be both? Oh hang on…
Ali Smith’s How To Be Both is available to buy online here.