The cover is deceptively like a book for young adults, a simple coming of age tale–two teenage girls from some time in the 1970s, walking on a street somewhere (possibly) in Paris. Ali Smith’s novel, shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize, caught me from the first page–no, actually, from the title. It’s been described as a literary “double take”, and “genre bending”. It is both those, and more.
The first part of the book is narrated by a 15-year-old who has lost her mother in an accident, and we go back and forth in memory and living, sometimes finding ourselves in the middle of conversations between Georgia and her absent but all-too-present mother. Conversations that begin in Italy and continue through Cambridge, that pose questions about art, thought, and life. At the core of the book is a fresco by a rennaissance painter of the 15th century, and, as Georgia’s compulsively curious mother, a child of the 60s, discovers the painter and his work, she launches her reluctant daughter into a journey of the mind and into memory.
The book then shifts to the painter, unsettled by this interaction and catapulted through the eyes of a painting into the present, where his gaze intersects with that of the girl, and everything becomes a whirl of past/present, then/now, man/woman, there/here…in fact, it is always both.
The layered narrative is at once painfully spare and charmingly dense, shifting from the teenager of the twenty first century to the painter of the fifteenth and taking us almost effortlessly from the wondering of one mind to the exploration of the other.
How to be both is about loss and discovery, about the place of art in a world of science, and about the need to rediscover the true “worth” of things. As Georgia wonders, “Is worth the same as money? Are they the same thing? Is money who we are? Is it how much we make that makes us who we are? What does the word make mean? Are we what we make?”
And then again, she echoes her mother’s sense of freedom in the face of great art: “It is so bloody lovely to forget myself for a bit.”