Ali Smith’s latest novel – How to be both – has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize, so any criticisms I make of it will be mere pissing in the critical wind. And I do have criticisms, all of them rooted in the fact that half the book is a good (but somehow familiar) story about middle class grieving in Ali Smith’s usual style*, while the other half is a FUCKING BRILLIANT feminist romp through the painterly courts of Renaissance Italy, following a gifted female artist who masquerades as a man (though no one is fooled), has many love affairs and swash-buckling adventures. And all written in Ali Smith’s usual style, the modernisty tone bouncing beautifully off the historical setting.
The historical half is great. It’s evocative, it’s a bit blaxploitation (if you replace the “bla” with a chipper crumpling of “cross-dressing lesbian”**), it’s racy, it’s brilliantly descriptive of the locations and societies that it’s set within. There’s a lot about colour, texture, paint; about politics (both gender and courtly), about desire, death, family, loyalty, friendship, sexuality, emotional development, jealousy-
I could go on. It’s almost complete, really: 180 pages*** of an excellent historical novella. But it ends and it’s over and the reader does not return to it.
The second half (or the first half – the book has been printed with some copies containing the order I read, others with the opposite – I’ll discuss this later) is much less exciting. It’s about a teenage girl (George) whose mother has died, about grief and burgeoning sexuality etc.. It’s a sad, but ultimately hopeful, “coming of age” story, with a tragic backbone. The teenager reminisces about a trip to Italy with her mother where they saw some of the works painted by the artist of the other half, she falls in love with a girl, she watches her father fall into an alcohol-dependent breakdown, she bunks off school to go to art galleries and, at the end, I suppose, she’s beginning to feel better. It’s fine.
The “modern” half of How to be both made me cry several times and, to be honest, loss and death (as well as teenage sexuality) are explored well and with tact. One in particular scene had me in such tears that I had to put the book down and take a few minutes. So it’s not a case of being merely “fine”, really, is it? That’s an understatement. It IS good, it’s more than good, it’s-
What it ISN’T is the first half. What it is, is mired in middle-class-intellectual-suburbia, it’s all just a little bit DRY. George’s father drinks too much to deal with his grief – but he doesn’t get into fights, crash his car or vomit on his children, he just gets boozey breath and speaks sentimentally… When George bunks off school, she goes to the fucking NATIONAL GALLERY. But, I mean, I’ve read Ali Smith before and understand that she writes about this kind of world and I shouldn’t have been so disappointed by its inclusion here. She writes it well, to be fair, she evokes it with emotion and with believability. But it’s just so much more OBVIOUS for her to address her themes in the present day, in that kind of setting, that-
The historical half of the book covers every issue of the other, and it does it BETTER. It is funnier, more emotional, wiser. Its background characters are effortlessly sketched, it is clever, political and FUN. The modern half pales in comparison, but only because it’s being compared to such a successful piece of fiction.
Half of How to be both is good, and I’d have been more than happy to read it as a thin text. But the rest is one of the most engaging stories I’ve read in months. If I’d read them the other way round, I think I’d have come away astounded by the exciting step up the novel made halfway through. As it was, my copy stepped DOWN. Which isn’t what anyone wants.
How to be both is a great novel, but as half of it is truly wonderful, I couldn’t help but feel cheated by the remainder of the text. It (and this is why I read it) taught me a very important lesson about consistency of engagement when writing texts with multiple narratives, something I intend to try to do. Hmm.
Read it, if just for the Renaissance half. (Though if you’ve never read any Ali Smith and are middle class and unashamed of how middle class you are, you’ll probably love the whole thing.)
* Which I like. I loved There but for the when I read it, but was a little underwhelmed by The Accidental, though didn’t dislike it.
** Does that count as “transgender”? In my willingness to not offend anyone, I try to never discuss sexuality, gender or race in anything but the vaguest terms. (Wikipedia tells me that “cross-dressing” is acceptable.)
*** If it matters, in a very big font. There aren’t a lot of words in here, which makes it all the more impressive.