How To Be Both is an enigmatic text.
The mystery starts even before the reader gets to the first page. According to a publisher's note, two versions exist and readers can encounter either one at random in bookstores. There are two different narratives in the book, a Part One and another Part One, which Smith interchanges. In some copies readers will first encounter the story of an early Renaissance mural artist; other readers will first meet an inquisitive teenage girl in the present day. This is one of several tricks in this playful and ambitious novel which aims to redress the ways we read.
And that is not the novel's only objective. This Man Booker longlisted novel also explores how humans reflect upon art and how art frames life.
The novel's form echoes the fresco painting style of the 15th century. Particularly applied to mural painting, the artist paints directly on to walls which he has plastered himself.
The texture of the walls becomes a part of the mural's narrative. Over time, artists plastered and painted over previous murals, leaving old ones to be found later.
Smith exploits this rich metaphor in imaginative ways. With its short, swinging lines, the shape of the text echoes the physical outline of the mural.
Colours and images are described in a fragmented way: "blue sky the white drift / the blue through it / rising to a darker blue". Such bold text might put some readers off, which would be a shame. The key to reading Smith's work is to revel in its glorious strangeness. A particular mural, based on artist Francescho del Cossa's Room Of Months, is essential to the novel. The mural acts as the vortex between the novel's two worlds.
And these two worlds are set centuries apart. As mentioned, Smith has two narratives which do not follow each other, but are linked and refer to one another. In this particular version, we meet the artist first. Born a girl into a stonemason family, Francescho must hide his gender by living in disguise. We follow Francescho as he tenderly sketches prostitutes, gets run out of town in Ferrara and continues to construct his layered murals. He also acquires an apprentice whom he suspects shares the same secret.
And yet, this may be the wrong narrative to read first. Despite the funky text and sharp historic details, this particular narrative lacks Smith's usual wit and grittiness. Characters speak in a strangely formal manner which skims over the serious issues at hand. The story seems stuck between wanting to present contemporary issues and remaining historical; this results in Francescho never fully exploring what it means to be a transsexual artist. His words lack the depth that his murals are meant to possess.
The second narrative of the teenage girl Georgia is a much better read. Her role seems to be that of a pushy critic, constantly questioning the adults in her life.
Her mother, Carol, takes Georgia and her brother to Italy where they see Francescho's mural. Afterwards, as she copes with Carol's sudden death, Georgia becomes obsessed with the mural, as well as the idea that her mother, the leader of a political think tank, was under surveillance.
These issues are a way for Georgia to keep Carol alive. They are also a distraction, as Georgia must look after her younger brother and a father who drinks too much. Georgia also becomes attracted to an equally intelligent girl in her class, which confuses her.
Smith has chosen two disparate narratives, but they are well linked. There are parallels of grief for deceased mothers, conflicted sexual identities and paranoia surrounding established authorities. Both narratives are also layered with secrets, like the murals. It feels odd that Francescho mentions Georgia in his narrative; he can "see" the girl studying his work. But perhaps that is the point: Francescho's art becomes the space in which Georgia tries to figure out her life.
And this just leaves the title to figure out. Does How To Be Both mean being both genders? Both dead and alive? Both artist and viewer? Smith leaves that up to the reader to decide.