Ali Smith’s 2014 publication, How to Be Both, is a novel written around a novel, and is one of the strangest, yet best written books I have read. It’s theme (This is a guess.) is androgyny. The beginning reads like poetry and is even placed on the page as such. If there is a “story” it is that of a young girl who disguises herself as a boy to study under and apprentice herself to a fresco painter in Italy during the Renaissance. Her characters in her paintings, like herself, are androgynous. The novel is also the “story” of a modern day girl whose mother has just died.
The girl in the second novel, George, (named after the song “Georgie Girl” by her raised-in-the-sixties mom) takes a trip to Italy with her mother and young brother to view the tower where the artist from the first novel has painted some of the walls. It is a present day museum. The mother and daughter “experience” the frescoes and share intimate thoughts/musings not often shared by a teenager and her mom.
After the mother dies, George visits a nearby museum where parts of the fresco details by the artist she and her mother admired are displayed. She visits frequently which brings comfort and revelations about herself. The one person who seems to understand George’s grief and deals with it along with her, a girl from school, is scheduled to move to Denmark shortly after she and Georgie begin to be friends just as they have begun to question whether they may be interested in becoming more than friends.
It is a strange book because it has no chapters, not even any sections, no barriers or boundaries between novels/stories, and thus becomes a challenge to read. It is a prize winning novel, definitely real literature, and perhaps a message to readers who explore its layers and depths.
I probably will need to and want to read this book again at a future date.