How to be both sad and happy.
How to be both the surface image and the underpainting.
How to be both dead and alive.
Ali Smith's fresh and beautiful novel, How to be both, embraces contradictions.
It's one year after her mother's death and 16-year-old George is still grieving. She skips school to haunt London's National Gallery, to stand in front of one particular painting. It's by Francesco del Cossa, a 15th-century Italian artist whose fresco work captivated George's mother. The disembodied spirit of Francesco begins following George.
It was from her mother that George learned how to dance the twist. It is through her own inner resources and creative drive, with support from family and friends, that George learns to emerge from grief."Also, this girl is good at dance : I am enjoying some of the ways of this purgatorium now : one of its strangest is how its people dance by themselves in empty and music-less rooms and they do it by filling their ears with little blocks and swaying about to a silence, or to a noise smaller than the squee of a mosquito that comes through the little confessional grille in each of the blocks : the girl was doing a curving and jerking thing both, with the middle of her body, she went up then down then up again, sometimes so low down that it was a marvel to see her come back up again so quick, sometimes pivoting on one foot and sometimes on the other and sometimes on both with her knees bent then straightening into a sinuous undulate like a caterpillar getting the wings out of the caul, the new imago emerging from the random circumbendibus."
Smith is a master wordsmith. She knows "how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it / up-rising through the skin of it."
How to be both is divided into two parts, both called "one." They are intended to be read interchangeably: some editions start with George, some with Francesco. That aspect alone would make for a good book discussion. There are so many other, deeper things to ponder, like art, perception, and the intangible gifts we get from people we love. This book is a masterpiece.
Readalike: Fabrizio's Return (Mark Frutkin)