Sunday, 4 January 2015

How to be Both by Ali Smith/ Penguin Books

Reviews, Vol I, Issue II
Shortlisted for
Also available as an audiobook from Audible Studios.
Click to listen the sample audio
Powered by
This clever, very clever, novel is made out of the stuff of life. Here we have the usual suspects: time, language, love and art; four of them. And as it is about life, it is also about death.

Time in which the past and future intertwine in the fleeting present, Love fledging its most admirable redeeming abilities, Language as the malleable communicator that sometimes fails, Art in its ability to fascinate and enchant.

With death always lurking…

Its structure is paramount. It has two strands: one and one, or one and one. They differ from each other in that one is about Eyes and the other is about Cameras and that the stories are different. Also in that one is set in today’s world and the other in 15th Century Ferrara. Both are about looking; looking through disembodied eyes or through additional devices that come with extended memory. Randomly, the individual volumes, when printed, will come as Eyes + Cameras or Cameras + Eyes. For the electronic format randomness has been substituted by repetition. They have included the two combinations. I fell in that trap since when I thought I was in the exact middle of the novel, I was faced with its doubling mirror. Was I supposed to travel back in my reading to its beginning? Or did I feel as if life had halted and I was left suspended in mid read?

As my first Smith her writing lured my interest. The two stories are engaging and, though appended and different, they intertwine through those four elements. Recognizing those elements gives comfort and bliss. Given the twenty views of my spiraling avatar it should not be surprising that her literary double helix, the coiling of her themes, and the pictorial snails added to my reading enjoyment. Smart is also her exploration of complementing or uniting doubles, particularly in sexuality, again at the core of life.

But I found a certain unbalance in the quality of her two narrative strands. The one set in today’s world seemed sturdier. While her 15th Century setting failed to create the texture of the Italian Renaissance. For authenticity she has peppered her story with quotes from Alberti’s On Painting and from Cennini’s The Craftsman's Handbook, both of which I have read, but which felt like Museum stickers in her narrative. She has also included highly apt textual versions of many beautiful paintings, mostly by the one artist who becomes a protagonist. These I have tracked in my updates in what became for me like a delightful detective game in a Museum. But the flavor of the language failed to recreate the aimed “qualitas” and transport me to a past, and now imagined, age.

I hope her other novels stay in the present. Smith knows how to capture this.

Reviewed by Kalliope
Kalliope lives in Madrid, Spain.

No comments:

Post a Comment