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.