Reading the Man Booker Prize 2014: How to Be Both by Ali Smith

It’s literature prize season, and the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize has been revealed! On its way to becoming the most important prize of them all, the Man Booker jury now accepts entries from all English-speaking writers published in the UK, opening up the contest for the American market. The much-anticipated onslaught of American novels has not happened this year, with only two writers making it onto the list of six finalists. There aren’t many big surprises, other than David Mitchell staying behind *boo hiss*, but at first glance, 2014 looks like a good year.

Having no funds or contacts, I have to rely on my local library to supply me with the six shortlisted novels. The first available one happened to be Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, and I  thank my lucky stars the random availability based on local reader’s interests, because this novel made me fall in love with novels all over again.

Ali Smith: How To Be Both

The book tells two stories — that of George, a teenage girl trying to cope with the loss of her mother, and Francesco del Cossa, a little-known Italian Renaissance painter. Both stories are connected, but they come in two distinct sections which can, and are intended to be, read in random order; there are two versions of the novel, and each one puts a different part first. The technical cleverness doesn’t end here, because symmetry and similarity play a big part in the novel. I started with George’s story, set in 2013 and early 2014, in which the main character has to deal with the shock of her mother’s sudden death and the mysteries she left behind. She recalls a visit to Italy during which her mother reveals an interest in Francesco del Cossa and his work in a palazzo in Ferrara. Through flashbacks, conversations with a school counsellor and a new-found friend, and the use of third-person subjective narration, the reader glimpses George’s inner life. Drawn to anything that brings her closer to her mother, George seeks out del Cossa’s paintings and tries to find the mysterious friend her mother had made before her death. It’s not a mystery story though, and the meaning of the word “mystery” itself gets discussed in the course of the narrative. It merely signifies the unknowable, as George has to deal with a life that she never imagined for herself. The mysteries of Francesco del Cossa are revealed in the other half of the novel, as the painter himself comes to life in 2014 and recalls his own past. Connections are revealed, both intellectually and metaphysically, and the borders between lives and times are blurred.

It’s an incredibly clever book. Nothing is left to chance, and almost every theme from one part surfaces in the other. It is to Ali Smith’s credit that reading How to Be Both never feels like an effort. On a superficial level, you can choose to simply be drawn in by the characters and their stories — both George and Francesco are clever and likeable. You can focus on themes of love and loss, on the role of mothers, or the differences of the role of art in the 15th and 21st century. There are enough themes here to keep a literature class busy for a whole term. As someone with a limited knowledge of (or rather, interest in) art history, the focus on art as creation of feeling really challenged me. My own stubborn world view of truth, proof, and order was momentarily shaken by the exploration of how a painting creates rather than recreates the world:

A picture is most times just a picture: but sometimes a picture is more: I looked at the faces in torchlight and I saw they were escapees: they’d broken free from me and the wall that had made and held them and even from themselves. I like very much a foot, say, or a hand, coming over the edge and over the frame into the world beyond the picture, cause a picture is a real thing in the world, and this shift is a marker of this reality: and I like a figure to shift into that realm between the picture and the world just like I like a body really to be present under painted clothes […]

The sense of making things exist that are only felt, or preserving something that is gone too fast, applies to paintings and photographs, videos and text messages alike in this novel. And although the book is relatively short, it feels long enough to deal with all those concepts, because Smith is just that good at hinting at things and leaving them to the reader to mull over. There is also a really interesting take on gender, sexuality and identity that I don’t want to give away here. Just this much: Read this book and rejoice for the state of modern literature. It’s a winner!

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