This lovely, dual-narrative novel by Ali Smith twines around itself like a double helix (and, in case you didn’t notice it, part of the novel takes place in Cambridge, England, where “DNA history had been made.”) In the first part of the book, a talkative 15th-century ghost named Francescho is dragged through space and time (“Ho this is a mighty twisting thing fast as a fish being pulled by its mouth on a hook if a fish could be fished through a 6-foot wall made of bricks”) to observe a grieving adolescent in our world, a kind of purgatorium Francescho both does and doesn’t understand. (Both.)
An ambitious painter, Francescho was hired, centuries ago, to decorate the Schifanoia palace: meant to banish boredom. The dazzling narrative flickers through flashbacks and experiences that would banish anyone’s boredom: a visit to prostitutes in which the outcome is not what anyone expected; run-ins with a tight-fisted patron over payment; a sharp observant eye on the world (a blackbird’s beak is a “good Naples yellow.”) Smith has put a tight twist in the helix on all these proceedings, however: it’s not until dozens of pages in that we discover that the garrulous painter is a woman disguised as a man, her chest tightly bound with linen, and trained by her bricklayer father to succeed in a man’s world. (How to be both.) We see Francescho observe our world, too: the adolescent holds up a “holy votive tablet” that we understand to be an iPad, on which she watches “frieze after frieze of carnal pleasure-house love enacted before our eyes.” Hmmm. We know what that is, too. Being both inside and outside is just another example of Smith’s light-handed play.
The second half of the narrative pulls us, gasping, into the year 2013. Here the adolescent George has recently lost her mother, at 50, to a senseless accident: an allergic reaction to a common antibiotic. Her mother was an influential economist with leftist views. She also designed “subverts” (a play on “adverts”) that popped up on the Internet: images that combined art and politics and made you think about both. George is trying to cope with her grief, partly through her fierce interest in an artist her mother was deeply drawn to before her death. Guess who? Francesco del Cossa, a painter whose biography we know little about, who painted the frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia. Surprise!
I think you’d have to read this book twice, or anyway one and a half times, to get all the references that fly back and forth and back again between the two halves of this book. There are walls and mythic beasts and hands and eyes growing from flower stems, to name just a few. Smith explores how to be both: not just both male and female, but how to laugh while grieving, how to know who you are and escape that identity, how the past breathes through the present and is still to some extent alive. The book feels light, and the prose is crisp and often witty, but it’s — as Francescho says about her art — “good at the real and the true and the beautiful.”