I'm away for a few days, so I've written a book review and scheduled it to post while I'm in Anguilla.
Ali Smith's new novel, How to be both [sic], is unlike anything I've ever read. It's a bit metafiction, yes, but it also is self-referential and self-reflective to an extent I've never seen.
Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up:
This book was a finalist for the Booker Prize and it's getting lots of attention because of the way it's being published. There are two narratives in the novel, and half of the books are published with one narrative first, while the remaining books have been produced with the other narrative first.
The "Camera" narrative (one story has a surveillance camera icon at the beginning) is a contemporary story of a teenage girl whose mum has died. In the midst of narrating her present grief, she has constant asides in which she reminisces about the past when her mum was still alive, particularly a trip to Italy where her mum expounds on the genius of a certain fifteenth century artist.
The "Eye" narrative (whose icon is a pair of eyes on a stem, like opera glasses), is that of the fifteenth century artist who has been transported to our time, but who, amidst his present voyeurism, is recounting the story of how his first mural was painted.
Interesting, eh? It's a little gimmicky, but it gets the point across. I was told a couple of months ago by my Random House sales rep that the order in which one reads the two halves makes a difference in how one sees the book, and glancing through various reviews on Goodreads confirms that. Most people seem to be more drawn to the story they read first. I happened to read the contemporary story about the teenage girl first, and that ended up being the story that resonated more with me.
The thing is, the two narratives of the book do form two halves of the whole, which might seem self-evident, but they're also a bit like the twin strands of DNA: they're doubling back on the other, and layering over the other, and informing the other. The question of the titular act of being "both" can be open to interpretation, and the answers are pretty wide ranging: how to be past AND present (or present and future, or past and future), how to be male AND female, how to be life AND art, how to be fragmented AND whole, how to grieve AND love, how to create AND destroy. I suspect that every reader will bring her own existential pairings to the text.
To say more about the plot would almost be pointless, as the ideas and Heraclitean pairings are what is important in this novel. This book definitely isn't for everybody, but if you are drawn to unconventionality, or if you like a little pop-philosophy in your fiction, take this book out for a spin. I think you'll find much to think about if you do.
NB: This book is already available for purchase elsewhere in the world, but it goes on sale on December 2, 2014, in the US from Pantheon, a division of Random House. I read an advance readers copy that was provided at my request by the publisher.