No one writes quite like Ali Smith. Her sentences snake this way and that, flick out their tongues, and nab details with blink-and-you-miss-it speed.
All this happens so fast you almost don’t realize Smith also has upended many of our expectations of fiction.
In her 2013 essay collection, “Artful,” Smith pinpointed her least favorite assumption of modern prose, namely that life moves from point A to point B in linear fashion.
In four books of stories and six novels, Smith has wiggled her way out of this straitjacket, time and again. Her 2001 Booker finalist, “Hotel World,” soared on the gusts of a ghost. In “The Accidental,” she slipped in and out of the perspectives of a family with the stealth of a cat burglar.
In “How to Be Both” Smith puts her rebellious theory to its most intense test yet. Told in two long stories, the book is a tale about time and gender. Brilliant and cheeky, but also profoundly mournful, it will one day join Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” as a key text in understanding the fluidity of human life.
Its power emerges from a dazzlingly twinned structure. One segment features the real-life Renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, who in this telling is actually a girl disguised as a boy so she can learn to paint frescos. The tale takes liberties with what is actually known about del Cossa.
In the other, 21st-century section a 16-year-old girl named George recalls a trip to Ferrara, Italy, to view these frescoes with her mother, who later dies of an allergic reaction. George is smart beyond her years, but also unmoored by grief’s chaos.
A clever publishing trick means readers will read this book differently. Half the copies of “How to Be Both” begin with George’s story, while the other group start with Francesco’s. Pick one up tomorrow and the choice in sequentiality will have been made at random by Pantheon’s distributor.
It would be easy to make too much of this ruse because however you read it “How to Be Both” shows this random sequencing to be a false binary. George, a modern girl with a boy’s name, is as imagined by Francesco as the other way around.
When George considers writing a fictional biography of Francesco for a class project, the reader must confront the fact that perhaps it is George’s tale of Francesco that we read (or have just read).
Even spookier, the tale about Francesco begins with the dead painter looking out from a fresco, observing George studying one of the frescoes, and mistaking her for a boy.
If your brain hasn’t melted yet, there’s also this: George’s and Francesco’s tales mirror each other like two ice skaters slicing a perfect routine. Both begin with a member of the dead, speaking into the present. They are love stories, and they are tales of grief. They also pivot neatly around notions of watching and the watched.
One night, Francesco — who has bound her breasts — goes to a brothel and refuses to sleep with a prostitute. Instead she draws her, and so it is in this abject, private space that she learns to love with her eyes and masters her craft. And thus by pretending to be a man — for an hour at a time — she becomes one for the rest of time.
Meanwhile, after the death of her mother, George begins to watch pornography on her iPad. She stumbles upon a film of an older man with an underage girl and is so shocked — each time she views it, the abuse happens again — George decides to watch it every day as an act of bearing witness to what is lost in that moment.
Soon George begins skipping school to take the underground into London’s National Gallery to gaze deeply into one of Francesco’s paintings. In her mind, George can and does enter Francesco’s painting, just as part — perhaps not quite such a sentient part — of Francesco lives on in his (or her) work.
The desire to capture the past, Smith beautifully shows, is one of our essential ways of recognizing that it lives like the ghost of a painter or the memories of a dead mother. Art, whether it is a debased film or a hung fresco, or this magnificent book, reminds us of this lesson, so we can go back into the world to live.
John Freeman is the editor, most recently, of “Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York.’’