Note: I’m incapable of writing reviews of things without spoilers. Be forewarned!
The structural conceit of Ali Smith’s How to Be Both presents a reader (and a reviewer) with a particular dilemma: two distinct halves of the same story, “Eyes” and “Camera,” which we are told at the outset can be read in either order, without losing the necessary context to understand the full story. And yet, once reader/reviewer has chosen their starting point, there’s no going back, no unremembering how it felt to dip into the section we chose and thus seeing how differently the novel might read had we picked the opposite starting point.
It’s a particularly interesting conundrum because “Eyes,” the section I chose to read first, is a master class in how to seduce a reader, literally starting with fragments and abstracted phrases that slowly fill in — both plot details, and as structural sentences — until it resembles what we would more traditionally recognize as a story. Told from the point of view of a Middle Ages Italian painter, Francesco del Cossa, a woman who has spent most of her life masquerading as a man (del Cossa and the works in the novel are real but there’s no historical evidence for the gender-bending backstory), “Eyes” is the half of the story in which the environment is most unfamiliar — both for its setting and the fact that it is unclear, until sometime into “Camera,” how Francesco has come to be a ghost, attached somehow to an adolescent girl in what appears to be the modern day United Kingdom. (There are a few to-be-expected observations from the ghostly spirit about certain confusing aspects of modern life that veer a bit into twee territory but Smith keeps these to a minimum.) “Camera,” told from the point of view of George (a nickname for Georgia), the teenage girl, is a far more traditional and recognizable narrative. George isn’t even aware of the painter’s ghostly observance of her life, so we get a far more pedestrian (although beautifully written) look at a girl grieving her mother’s untimely death, exploring first love and sexuality, and sorting out the “real” world the way teenagers so often do when confronted with it.
Smith wisely balances the parallels between her two main characters without forcing them into too equal of shapes — both women lose their mothers as children, but Francesco far earlier than George (there’s a nice touch in having both Francesco and her mother die from diseases modern medicine has cured, while George’s mother dies from an allergic reaction to a medicine that wouldn’t have existed but for modern science). George is allowed to explore her attraction to a fellow female classmate and its implications far more openly than Francesco is allowed to consider her sexuality, despite being far more experienced in such things than George. Francesco collects faces and other items she encounters in real life and reproduces them in her works; something echoed not by George, but by her mother’s remixing of art and political tropes in her “subversive” artwork. (To be honest, that subplot felt incomplete for me partly because the art as described just didn’t feel dangerous or challenging enough to gain the following we’re told it had — it reminded me of something I’d happily chuckle over at The Toast.)
Ultimately, I found myself wishing for an entire “Eyes” book, without developing any particular attachment to the characters in “Camera,” which I found myself reading largely for clues to Francesco’s life (and afterlife). Would I have read it differently if I’d started with “Camera”? Personally, I doubt it — Francesco’s story is so much more alien and intriguing that reading it second probably would have made me wonder why I’d spent so much time with George. But there’s the rub — unlike Smith’s title, the reader can’t have it both ways.
Rating: 4 stars (5 stars for “Eyes,” 3 for “Camera”)
Next Up: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill
Station Eleven Waitlist Position: 194