You could say the muse of this novel is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. The mischievous, time travelling, gender crossing spirit of history who breaks down boundaries, reconciles opposites, defies death.
I read the Francesco narrative first. Francesco is based on the real life painter Francesco del Cossa (who I had never heard of). The fresco which features large in this novel is a stunning piece of oddball invention and even if I’d hated this novel I’d be grateful to Smith for introducing me to it: Ferrara, here I come! Francesco is born a woman (though it’s easy to miss this very important premise and I only caught it by sensing I had missed something and going back to the beginning when I was about fifty pages in). History knows next to nothing about Francesco so Smith (or perhaps George, her other narrator) was able to more or less make him/her up. Which she does with compelling brio and mischief. Though Francesco’s voice can be a bit hit or miss, overly pretentious at times in its stream of consciousness highwire cavortings, at its best it’s definitely for me the most creative achievement in this novel. Smith does something new with language here – nothing revolutionary but she strikes up a deliciously quirky rhythm through Francesco’s voice. The other narrator, George, a girl with a boy’s name, is much more conventionally familiar and therefore safer. Smith uses George to introduce a lot of stock-in trade social satire, which might make you giggle but also might elicit a weary sigh. I’ve also been racking my brains to find Geoege’s twin in literature or cinema because I did have a sense of déjà vu while reading her narrative – an adolescent girl whose mother has just died and is left with an emotionally absent father and a shell-shocked younger brother. Hasn’t she appeared rather brilliantly somewhere else before? “What’s the point of art?” George asks her mother. How to be Both tries to provide various answers to that question.
To be honest, I’m not sure I really understood the higher significance of the gender swapping except as a paying of lip service to feminist notions of gender interchangeability. Perhaps Orlando, her muse, led her a bit astray here. George’s sexual ambivalence was fine and subtle; Francesco’s seemed a bit too conveniently forced. Sometimes Smith’s determination to enter into mirrors everywhere was a bit heavy handed for me. Like a teacher lecturing you on how much profundity resides in this passage or those brushstrokes. The novel flows beautifully in parts and it’s usually when Smith is reinforcing her double agent surveillance theme that the flow is interrupted.
The most exciting and thought-provoking moments of the novel are when the narratives intersect, when Smith gets the mirrors to smoke. This essentially happens twice and this is when you put most effort into trying to imagine the effect had you read the narratives the other way round. And when you try to answer the question, Are the two alternative versions a stroke of ingenious artistry or little more than a marketing gimmick? I’m glad I read the Francesco narrative first. The other way around and I think the novel would have been more dialectical, more emotionally detached. You’d also probably have the idea that George is inventing Francesco’s biography for her own purposes and this would surely make him less significant and poignant as a character in his/her own right. You’d also be deprived of the revelations that take place in the National Gallery which is a brilliant moment of bringing into focus everything you’ve seen so far.
The principal achievement of this novel for me was not its philosophical maze of smoking mirrors but simply the hightide creative energy and the playful joie du vivre with which it’s written. A novel will always be more compelling when the author feels consuming love for her story and characters and manages to convey it. Smith certainly achieves this. I felt this more strongly with Francesco whom Smith clearly adored. George was less original as a voice though probably more accessible as a result.