Monday, April 04, 2016

How to Be Both

by Ali Smith

I once tried to discuss David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas with a friend, only to realize after ten minutes that she was talking about The Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan. How to Be Both is a little bit like that, on purpose. Two stories, more cross-referential than intertwined, compose this brilliant book, which has two published versions with the same two stories in different order. I don't remember if my copy was "Camera" then "Eye," or "Eye" then "Camera." Imagine the possibilities of a book discussion group in which some people read one version and some read the other.

I really enjoyed the writing in this book. I found myself re-reading passages, flipping around through the pages to hunt for connections and clues, and even posted some choice quotes online. The two stories are set in very different times (1400s and 1960s, I think) and are superficially very different to one another, despite the appearance of a particular Italian fresco in both. They are thematically related, however, and "inform" one another (in the parlance of literary criticism). So in a sense it's a complex novel of ideas, but also one that's just damn good reading.

What it is the book about, though? A teenage girl's coming of age in England and a Renaissance artist with a secret, but telling you that doesn't really help. It's also, as the title indicates, about being two things at once, which is also like being neither thing, and it's about how we tell ourselves and show others who we are. To whom should one recommend this book? Anyone who enjoys literary fiction and those who have enjoyed books by Barbara Kingsolver, Donna Tartt, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jeanette Winterson, Virginia Woolf. (Those last three could constitute a little bit of a clue that I hope won't spoil anything.)

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