Ali Smith’s new novel is a delicate and deft look at bereavement, examined through the lens of two interwoven narratives. In a manner similar to the formal experimentations of writers such as B.S. Johnson, Smith’s two-part book has been published in two different formats, each beginning with a different half. One half is about a sixteen year old girl called George who is dealing with the recent loss of her mother; the other is about Francesco del Cossa, a fresco painter from the 1400s who suddenly finds himself transported into the present. The two stories blend into one another, as Francesco watches George, and George looks at the paintings of Francesco.
Ali Smith’s novels often celebrate what language and punctuation can do when used in a non-conventional manner, most notably in Hotel World and Girl Meets Boy. This approach is well-suited to a topic like bereavement, when language perhaps cannot express sentiment as well as one would hope. In making the page a visual as well as a verbal space, Smith develops a new kind of eloquence for dealing with grief.
She defies the gender binary by creating two female characters with masculine names and/or identities. When George’s mother Carol takes her to Italy to see Francesco’s fresco we do not know the name of the painter, and neither do Carol or George. When George suggests looking it up on her phone, Carol declines, saying ‘it’s so nice. Not to have to know’. When we discover the painter’s identity, the second half of the book becomes his narrative. Alternatively, if you are reading the other version, you are in the interesting position of knowing much more about Francesco than George and Carol, including his presumed gender identity. A large part of the narrative is about this pleasure of knowing and unknowing, vision and blindness, language and silence. George interrogates assumptions about gender, wondering if the fresco she is looking at could have been painted by a woman – and Smith plays with this assumption by changing the gender of the real painter.
She paints a very developed picture of George and all her idiosyncrasies by flitting between first and third person perspective on almost every page. Smith’s treatment of bereavement is astonishingly perceptive. Many times, when George recounts a memory of her mother, she stops to correct her own grammar. ‘Not says. Said. George’s mother is dead.’ She may be skilled at using language and metaphor, (a particularly enjoyable example: ‘television screens bulged like the midriffs of obese middle-aged people’), but she lacks a developed vocabulary for describing art. Smith, however, demonstrates that no reaction to a piece of art can be deemed invalid as George’s simplistic descriptions of images are an enjoyable read. Had any other writer attempted this from a teenager’s viewpoint it may have seemed contrite or patronising, but Smith’s habitually simplistic style serves her well.
Carol says that ‘art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.’ (Here Smith adapts W.B. Yeats’ dictum: ‘For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making). The idea of what art is and is not is embraced in exciting and versatile ways. George compulsively re-watches a pornographic film and, when questioned about her motives, she defends herself by saying ‘This really happened… and it happens for the first time, over and over again, every time someone who hasn’t seen it before clicks on it and watches it.’ George watches it in order to honour the girl in the film, to never forget. Yet when Francesco witnesses George watching the film, she sees something similar but different, remarking that the ‘love act’ depicted in the video hasn’t changed for centuries. Smith shows us that we all see the same things in different ways and asks us to consider how art and literature can be viewed across time, writing that both ‘seeing and being seen… is very rarely simple.’
The book implores us to forget what we know and to apply this unknowing to our criticism of all forms of art. This is a bold request, yet posed in a manner that doesn’t feel patronising or obtuse. In How to be both Smith celebrates difference in a delightfully accessible manner, resulting in a thoughtful, philosophical enquiry into all that a reader may take for granted.