How to be both

by Ali Smith

Fantastic book!  I picked it up in the library, having heard about it (from someone in my book group, I think).  I’ve never been tempted to read anything by this author before.  So glad I selected this book, on impulse, during an equally impulsive visit to the library.

George is a teenager whose mother has recently and suddenly died.  Much of her story is to do with the process of her mourning, finding a friend who helps her along the way, and also reflecting on a visit to Ferrara in Italy with her mother the previous spring, to see a painting by Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa.

The other half of the book is del Cossa’s story, told in the artist’s own words.  This section gives a very convincing portrait of fifteenth-century Italian society and the world of artists and their patrons.

I’ve read that two versions of the book were published simultaneously.  I read the version with George’s story first and Francesco’s second, but the alternative version has the two stories the other way around.  I really don’t know how I would have responded to the novel, had I read this version first.  As it is, I was spellbound.

Smith deals with loss, grief, justice (and injustice), chance, growing up, gender (and gender ambiguity), and most especially art.  The words used by del Cossa to describe the process of drawing and painting and its effect on the artist ring very true.

I can think of several books written in recent years which take a work of art as the start of an adventure, either in factual narrative (The Hare with Amber Eyes) or fiction (The Girl with a Golden Earring; The Goldfinch; The Miniaturist). The painting which is the main work of art referred to in this novel is a fresco in a palazzo in Ferrara.  Though I have not seen or read up about this painting, the publisher has helpfully printed two images from it in the flyleaves of this book.

One thing still puzzled me slightly: the front cover of my library copy of the paperback has a photograph of Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy as young girls, walking along a shopping street in conversation with each other.  It is a beautiful photo of two lovely women, and it is referred to in the stories.  But I am unclear as to its significance to the story.  Perhaps this is the kind of relationship that George and her friend H aspire to (and it is H who introduces George to this photo).  Perhaps it is the slightly androgynous figures that these two very young women present.  Either way, it is a delightful cover picture.

I also picked up, on the same library visit, another of Smith’s books entitled Public Library and other stories. Hard to resist, when I was myself indulging in the joys of a spontaneous library visit.  On to that next.