George is a teenage English girl of today; Francescho is a young Italian painter of the quattrocento. Their separate narratives comprise the two halves of this clever novel; the hinge that binds those halves is a magnificent fresco series in Ferrara by Francesco del Cossa, George’s mother’s favourite artist, which the pair visit just before the mother’s sudden death.
Ali Smith likes to live dangerously, it seems. It is risky to base a novel around a work of art – it has been done very often, and there’s a kind of aesthetic piggy-backing that can feel like cheating. Not to mention the pervading whiff of “research”. For a writer, it can be perilous to have a super-perceptive adolescent as your primary narrator – that way cutesiness lies – yet Smith gives herself two of them. And the broken-backed structure of a novel in two halves, their timeframes separated by centuries, is again over-familiar, and courts the risk that readers will spend the second half of the book picking up on clever parallels, rather like a sixth-form English class.
Undaunted, in her latest book Smith walks boldly into each of these danger areas, but skilfully makes the territory her own, skirting every pitfall and adding so much unexpected richness that we forgive the occasional stumble into the expected.
In the modern half of the book George, short for Georgia, is named to alert us to the gender-bending that beats like a pulse through both narratives. After her mother’s death, George lives in the family home with her younger brother and a father who uses alcohol “like wearing a whole fat woolly sheep between me and the world”. There is school, and cooking Henry’s supper, and therapy sessions with Mrs Rock. But George’s more vivid life is lived in flashback conversations with her mother, in bunking off school to gaze at the only del Cossa in the National Gallery, and in two unusual relationships.
One, with an older school friend, is typical of clever girls testing out their first romantic feelings. It’s a loose mirror of a mysterious almost-sapphic liaison of her mother’s, but while “H” shyly suggests that she is “a bit more hands-on than hypothetical”, George prefers to send texts in Latin. The other, much stranger bond is virtual, with an underage girl who is the victim of a piece of nasty pornography that George discovers by chance online.
The book’s other half transports us to Italy in the 1460s, where the odd and talented child of a mason-brickmaker has also suffered the loss of a young and vibrant mother. In the throes of grief, the child wanders the house dreamily decked in the mother’s clothes until the father, in desperation, strikes a deal: to adopt a new name and dress “like your brothers”, in return for lessons in drawing and colours.
So Francescho the jobbing painter is born, and learns to be artisan and artist, to “be expert at the painting of hands and be good at the grinding of blue and the using of blue, both”, to be “my particular both”.
We gradually discover, as his narrative develops, that Francescho is also both in his own time and out of it, both living and not, in an oblique commentary on the reach and durability of art.
As she delves into the medieval world, savouring its rumbustious textures as well as the intimacies and rigours of the artist’s life, Smith’s writing really catches fire. In this section all her rich stylistic inventiveness, as well as her imaginative range, come into play. She uses, as she did so brilliantly in her 2011 novel There But For The, a surrealist touch so light that we hardly notice its intrusion, yet gradually realise that it has become the time-bending engine of the narrative, the locus of our deepest thinking about her many themes.
The author clearly relishes every bit of this half of her novel, and so do we. So much so that it’s hard to shake the sense that this is the book she really wanted to write. If there is a flaw in this rich, strong and moving novel, it may be that its modern first half comes to serve as a cleverly made structure to underpin the second.
There’s the fresco, as Smith tells us, and if you remove it you see the drawing underneath – but, as George’s mother muses at one point, which came first? It’s not a rhetorical question. If you happen on a different copy of this book, you might find that the two parts are reversed, with the Italian story before the present-day narrative. Half the print run is one way, half the other. Everything in the structure still works perfectly – how’s that for a triumph of plot-making? Other writers might grind their teeth (is Smith just showing off?) but readers will find still more ingenious byways in her ingenious time-travelling.
How to be Both, by Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£16.99, 372 pages
Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor