"Who says stories reach everybody in the same order?" — Ali Smith, in a note from the author

Ali Smith's novel "How to Be Both," a finalist for the Booker Prize, is printed in two editions, one with the story of 15th-century artist Francesco del Cossa coming first, the other beginning with the story of a young girl in modern Cambridge.

Let me start, although my edition didn't, with George, christened Georgia, who is real in a way that Francesco, however charmingly ebullient, isn't quite. In a book about how stories speak to us in different ways at different times, we see George in the year after her mother's death at the same time as we see the two as they used to be, the cheeky teenager working out her identity under — and often against — her remarkable mother's tutelage. When mother and daughter visit the Palazzo Schifanoia (the Palace to escape Boredom) in Ferrara, they see Cossa's extraordinary frescoes, which (in the now that is also later) speak to George in her confusion and mourning.

The making of these frescoes is at the center of the other story. From the sketchy record, Smith re-imagines Francesco as a disguised girl, the stonemason's child becoming an artist in a rich Renaissance mishmash of sharp wit, low comedy, pathos and historical detail.

Ali Smith's signature themes — of the fluidity of identity and gender, appearance and perception — are here in profusion, as is her joyful command of language, from lofty rhetoric to earthy pun. If Francesco is finally not as compelling as George, it may be that this story's true character is to be found in the telling.