Today we have part three in our Best in Reading series. Here is Pooja Pande, lead reportage editor of Papercuts magazine, with her pick, How to be Both by Ali Smith.
An Ali Smith book is always an Ali Smith book, in some ways – we can expect an irreverent disregard for rules of any kind – to do with the genre she’s writing in, for the form of the novel, towards wordplay, even structural sanctity (or is it sanity?). But then an Ali Smith book is also never like any other Ali Smith book – if Hotel World grappled with time and mortality, and The Accidental was a satirical take on the construct of the family, then How to Be Both is, in its very essence, a treatise on art.
Posing the conundrums that have plagued artists and connoisseurs since eternity, and continue to be at the forefront of most modern political discussions – What is art? What is the purpose of art? What can art solve, or resolve, if anything? What about the artist? Does he have responsibility? – the novel dwells on the relationship between art and life, and one echoing the other.
Smith has such a deliciously playful style that none of this weighs down the reader, or the book. She storytells her way through it all, as we’re pulled into the life of George and her mother, of dance routines and forbidden loves, of 60s pop stars and pre-teen heartache. The narrative voice is primarily that of a teenager’s – perhaps one of the most common threads in Smith’s books is that she is partial to the child’s perspective – and this is one of the reasons that ensures How to Be Both full of tenderness and yet devoid of sentimentality.
If you ever find yourself wondering about the novel’s potential, read this one. Read it anyway. And there’s a big bonus: Some very cool time-travelling right back to fifteenth century Italy.