Ali Smith - How to be Both (5 stars)

Man Booker Prize-longlisted book a stunning work that is as rewarding as it is challenging

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Ali Smith - How to be Both

(Hamish Hamilton)

Being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize before publication adds heady expectations to a novel, but with How to be Both, Ali Smith has reasserted herself as one of the UK’s most inventive and progressive writers. Replicating techniques borrowed from fresco painters, Smith tells two completely different but deceptively similar parable-laden tales.

In the contemporary world lives George, a teenager approaching womanhood, while in 1460s Italy, renaissance artist Francesco attempts to make a living from his brush while concealing a deep secret about himself. Both characters are haunted by the loss of their mothers, their similarities illustrating the ageless struggle of the human condition. Both halves of the novel interweave in the most unexpected ways, becoming metaphysical and timeless as George becomes fixated by one of Francesco’s paintings, while the painter himself observes George from another dimension entirely.

Depending on which of the two available versions of the novel you read, the experience differs – in some editions, George’s story follows Francesco’s and in others, vice-versa. It’s a bold concept which at times is disorientating, but it is one that perfectly illustrates the themes of reinvention and perspective in the novel. At what point does it begin, and where does it end?

The prose is lyrical and at times opaque as Smith plays with form and structure, but this creates a truly immersive experience. Dealing with grief, obsession, sexuality and the versatility of art itself, Smith has created a stunning work that is as rewarding as it is challenging.

Out Thu 28 Aug.

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