Time has a defined order and direction, doesn't it? It moves from yesterday to tomorrow, briefly visiting each slice of today en route. If you know the difference between memories and current experiences, then you know which of a number of events happened earlier, and which happened later. That's the simple certainty that allows us to organise our lives, and which makes the world go round. But what if that simple certainty is no longer so certain? Ali Smith's "How to be both" challenges our preconceptions about order, about time, and about the form and presentation of narratives in fiction.
The focal point of the book is a single incident, seen in flashback, when 16 year-old George (a.k.a Georgia) and her since deceased mother are visiting Ferrara in Italy with George's younger brother to view the work of a (real) Italian early-Renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa. Her mother is talking about the underdrawings sometimes found beneath frescos and asks George which came first: the underdrawing or the finished fresco. From the artist's point of view the underdrawing was done before the fresco was painted over it, but when an art restorer gets to work, the underdrawing is only seen after parts of the covering fresco have been peeled away, so comes afterwards.
That's a fine metaphor for Ali Smith's latest book. It offers two distinct but closely linked narratives. One looks at the modern world of George, struggling to come to terms with the death of her mother. The other looks at the life of Francesco del Cossa in the mid 1400s. Ali Smith's Francesco is not everything he seems, and at the same time is much more than he seems: and as the parallel narratives unfold, the links between George and Francesco grow ever closer.
The question "which came first" has echoes in the way the two narratives, each occupying around half the book, can be read in either order. Indeed, we understand that half the production run of the book has been printed with George's narrative coming before Francesco's (the order in which we read them), while the other half has been printed the other way around. Which gives rise to an intriguing question. Does a reader's experience of the book differ depending on which narrative they read first? We think it probably does, and if we're right we have some slight qualms about an author leaving what may be a significant element of the reader's experience of their book to chance: but this nonetheless remains a fascinating approach. Overall, we find it no surprise at all that "How to be both" has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize.