I finished How to be Both on a train coming back from London. I spent the final 20 minutes of my journey sitting in silence with the book closed on my lap simply processing what I had read. This is one of the more exciting books I have read recently, not only for having a superb story but also for the way it is written and structured. I loved encountering this book fresh with no knowledge of what was to come, and I think my reading experience was improved for so doing, so I shall keep my comments brief and relatively vague. However, I will observe that I have been recommending this to all and sundry: if you have any interest in the Booker, or in modern literature generally, this is well worth your time.
Smith tells two stories in this book, both of 184 pages in length and titled ‘One’. One of these stories is told from a first person perspective and flits between the modern day and Renaissance Italy; the other is narrated in the third person and is entirely modern. Smith’s voice is wonderfully inventive and incredibly malleable: she has mastered the stream-of-consciousness style and uses it dazzlingly. The stories themselves are highly compelling and each could stand alone and still be excellent. But Smith wasn’t content simply to leave things there. Her stories are heavily intertwined and reading one informs the other. In fact, there are two versions of this book available: half have the modern narrative first and the other half the narrative which flits between modernity and the past (mine was the latter). Smith seems fascinated by the idea of hidden lives and stories. Her book blurs gender, sexual, and temporal lines. Even the story largely set in the past is told by a speaker at a point after the modern tale. Unusually, I want to read this again to consider the stories in reverse order (per my edition).
This is a remarkable novel and, although I won’t be so bold as to say it will win, I can guarantee Smith will be a strong contender and, if anything does give her a run for her money, then this will have been a fantastic year for reading.
Next up: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan