On Reading Ali Smith
“I looked at the faces in torchlight and I saw they were escapees : they’d broken free from me and from the wall that had made and held them and even from themselves.”
– Ali Smith, How to be Both
When I read a book, I want the story to stay with me; maybe it’s selfish, but as a reader I have to feel that I’ve read something new. I never search for books to read, instead I wait for brilliant writers that I adore to publish a new book; and it’s well worth the wait. When I finished Ali Smith’s How to be Both, I realised the prose was still with me; this is always the case with her novels. Every sentence is beautiful, purposeful and clever.
Smith has been slowly reinventing the novel, but this is more dramatic. There are two versions of How to be Both, one that begins with George’s story set in present day Cambridge and the other story is set in 15th century Italy. There is a seamless connection between the two stories and both are titled Part One, ‘Eyes’ section and ‘Camera’ section. In my edition, George’s story is Part One.
Time is broken. The novel begins with a conversation between 16-year-old George and her mother, Carol; the conversations between mother and daughter occur so often that Carol almost seems alive until I remember that she isn’t. I suppose that is why memory functions so well as a theme in this novel. All of George’s memories are vibrant, to such an extent that Carol doesn’t live in the past, she exists in the present. Only a motherless George can be consumed with the act of watching, she even believes that Carol was under surveillance; what becomes clear is George’s watching does not function as a simple distraction from her mother’s death, instead it is a constant questioning of everyone around her. Grief itself leads George to the National Portrait Gallery and it’s there that she finds Francesco del Cossa’s painting, Saint Vincent Ferrer; yet, while George watches St. Vincent, she, too, is being watched. This section is further proof that Smith’s ideas are unlike anything else I have read; the boundaries between life and death as well as the act of watching and being watched are severed as the artist watches George.
Francesco del Cossa becomes Francescho, who disguises herself as a boy after the death of her mother and begins a career as an artist. The gender identity theme reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando; I’ve associated Ali Smith with Virginia Woolf since reading Girl meets Boy. How Smith re-imagines Francesco del Cossa’s life including the artist’s gender is so well done, it left me in awe. The Francesco section is complex with fragmented prose, but it reflects Smith’s versatile narrative. Her inventive prose is challenging yet effective; it demands the reader’s attention in a way that many novels can’t or won’t.
How to be Both is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t win. This is easily one of best novels I’ve read in the past two years.
The US release date for How to be Both is December 2, 2014 but it can be purchased now from Waterstones, which offers international delivery.