Published in September issue of Prospect Magazine
Ali Smith is an unrepentant stylist. She is not interested in “transparent” prose that aims to melt before the reader’s eyes. Instead she revels in the artifice of language, in poetic free-flow wordplay. Like her previous works, The Accidental and There But For The, Smith’s latest novel how to be both—which has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize—reads as if she has summoned words from some region of the unconscious and released them in a trance. Yet this is careful artifice as well.
How to be both has two narratives, one historical and the other set in the present. In 15th-century Italy, a girl shows remarkable promise as an artist. Her father dresses her as a boy, so she can serve an apprenticeship. Ironies ensue. In present-day Britain, a girl called George struggles to contend with finitude and mortality. Why create anything at all when those we love must die and then we will be snuffed out too? “Is this real? George says. Is it hypothetical? Does that matter?”