How to be Both

What are the conditions needed to be truly moved by something? I like to think it’s intensely personal, like falling in love. The intricate web of circumstance, location, what you had for dinner that day, your mood, how difficult it was to get where you were going. All of these elements can combine to produce a few treasured months or years, or perhaps a chance meeting that you sometimes think about but you never led to anything. So too, with art. I’ve watched films that have moved others to tears and been bored, gazed at paintings, scouring the canvas for whatever it is that I’m missing, and read books that have failed to scratch the surface. I expected to love Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and though I enjoyed it, nothing seemed to penetrate. Maybe I was in a cynical mood that week.

So what was it about How to be Both by Ali Smith? Perhaps the fact that I read almost two-thirds of it while on holiday in a truly peaceful portion of France. Possibly because gender and its exploration fascinates me, or maybe just the amount of cheese and wine that was going through my system. Either way, I experienced one of those rare and beautiful moments. I finished the last words. I pressed the pages back together. I looked around me. I wanted it to go on forever, absorbing and being filled by something at the same time. It feels like the world has changed, just a little bit, or your eyes don’t see quite the same way now. You don’t want it to end. Reading another book would spoil it, speaking out loud would break the threads of it. These are the moments when we are lifted out of ourselves.

So how is it done? Now I have a week of emotional distance from the euphoria of finishing it, am I able to fragment the pieces of it and examine what makes it so good? In a word (well, two) sort of. The book was published in two forms. You either start with the narrative of a 15-year-old girl in Cambridge whose mother has suddenly died, or you’re the ‘ghost’ of an Italian painter from the fifteenth century. Once you’ve read one, you read the other, so the whole book is in two parts. I left it to chance, and just picked up the first one on the pile in Waterstone’s (other bookshops are available). For me, the painter came first. Which I think I liked, as it meant we came closer to the ‘now’ of the book as I progressed, even though the narrative of the painter actually extends beyond that of the girl.

And that’s pretty clever. From an entirely plot-based point of view, this is one of the wonderful elements of the book. Events, thoughts and feelings are interwoven, in such a subtle way that you feel like you are being rewarded for figuring it out. She treads the line between being too subtle and too overstated brilliantly. What this leads to is thematic resonance across both, so it almost doesn’t feel like two entirely different narratives. Fathers, absent mothers, lovers, confusion, displacement in time, all of these things echo through both, creating comparison and harmony where you weren’t expecting it.

Setting is also cleverly expressed. They both contain just enough details to give you a sense of place, without it overpowering the story. The painter’s narrative in particular has hardly any exposition at all, to an extent where you feel a bit lost, perhaps as you might expect to be, in the fifteenth century in a body that doesn’t fit your desires. The prose here is also disjointed, the syntax and punctuation is a little jarring. Perhaps if you read it the other way around that wouldn’t happen as much, but I quite liked feeling my way through the place and time, just like the character.

Ostensibly, the stories contain tragedy, which could naturally lead to something moving. Loss and deception, thwarted hopes, all that sort of thing. But that in itself isn’t enough. You need to believe in the people or it will not move you. I don’t know if it’s the narrative voice, or the prose, but I can’t remember the last time I felt so connected to a character. In different ways, they both capture something that I suppose must be universal, that had me aching, yearning and hoping along with them. It was desperate, yet careful, tragic, yet uplifting. These words are trotted out so often I think perhaps we forget where they truly apply.

I would also like there to be something I can’t identify or pin down. That under scrutiny, refuses to reveal itself. I don’t think I want to know exactly how it’s done. For me, this is where the hidden magic of the world lies.