How to Be Both

By Ali Smith

Pantheon. 372 pages. $25.95.

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Reviewed by Andrew Ervin


The order in which you read

How to Be Both

is entirely up to you. That's of course true of all books. You're always free to read the final chapter first if you're so inclined. But in this instance, the Scottish-born Ali Smith has something special in store.

Her time-traveling, Booker-shortlisted novel features two distinct stories. Which one appears first depends on the copy you've purchased. In keeping with the title, the book has been printed both ways.

In my copy, the first story features a Renaissance artist who goes by the name Francescho. He's a prodigiously talented illustrator who barters some of his drawings for the services of a nearby pleasure house and eventually gets work on an important fresco, among other projects. Even the unconventional syntax grants a fascinating kind of access to his mind:

But art and love are a matter of mouths open in cinnabar, of blackness and redness turned to velvet by assiduous grinding, of understanding the colours that benefit from being rubbed softly one into the other: the least of the practice will make you skillful: beyond which there's originality itself.

For all his successes, Francescho's life remains characterized by his inability to reconcile his sour relationship with his father. Similarly, in the other story, a young girl named Georgie is forced to cope with the devastating loss of her mother. Set in more or less contemporary Cambridge, her tale completes a kind of narrative yin and yang. Memories of a visit to Italy are particularly moving:

That night in their hotel room before they go to bed her mother is brushing her teeth in the bathroom. This hotel used to be someone's house in the years when people made frescoes. It is called the Prisciani Suite and was the actual house of someone who had something to do with the making of frescoes at the palace where they went to see the pictures earlier.

Many of this novel's great joys derive from Smith's ability to tie together the two seemingly disparate stories in wonderful and unexpected ways. It's a meditative book, steeped in the voices of these characters, and it insists on the precise kind of quiet attention so hard to come by these worldwide-wired days. In lesser hands, the flip-flopping order might have felt gimmicky, but Ali Smith is a master storyteller, and How to Be Both is a charming and erudite novel that can quite literally make us rethink the way we read.

Andrew Ervin's debut novel, "Burning Down George Orwell's House," will be published in spring. He lives in Manayunk.