Book Review: How To Be Both by Ali Smith



by Ali Smith




Here it is, another Ali Smith review. She is definitely one of the most exciting writers working today (has been for many years), and How To Be Both may be her best novel so far (or at least at the time of its publication). That is the popular consensus, as far as I can tell. It was published in 2014, and went on to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Folio Prize, and it won the 2015 Bailey’s Women’s Prize.

The novel is divided into two parts, two narratives that are to some degree independent of each other, but still tied together on several levels. One part tells the story of George, a teenage girl in the present day who has lost her mother, and the other part is s first person narrative of Francesco Del Cossa, an Italian Renaissance painter. One of the cool things about the novel is that, depending on the particular copy of the book you buy, you will either read George’s story first, or Francesco’s story first. This will definitely affect the way you perceive the novel, and it is very intriguing because you’ll never know what it would have been like to read it in the reverse order. Ali Smith talked about this in an interview with The Guardian, where she said that “There are two ways to read this novel, but you're stuck with it – you'll end up reading one of them,” but you can’t have it both ways. I happen to get a copy that started with George.

In the present, it is New Year’s, and George is at home, thinking of her mother who passed away a few months earlier. She remembers a trip they took to Italy in May of the year that just ended. Her mother wanted to go to a specific palace in Ferrara, where there is a large fresco she has seen online. She is intrigued by the artist, as little is known about his life, and the fresco itself has been restored very recently, staying hidden underneath layers of paint for centuries.

Francesco Del Cossa is a painter who was commissioned to paint a fresco for the new Duke of Ferrara, depicting the Duke in his everyday life throughout the twelve months of the year. His is a first person account of how he cultivated his passion for painting since childhood, his father’s influence on him, her mother and her passing away when he was still very young, and his ambitions working at the Duke’s Palace, and later in Bologna.

Both stories flow very organically in a non-linear narrative which is driven by memories, instead of a conventional perception of time. They both deal with loss, with remembering and forgetting, with visual art, be it paintings or photographs or videos, with friendship and love, and with duality. Duality is of course in the title itself, as Ali Smith explores how to be both a 21st century teenager and a 1460’s painter, both child and adult, both male and female, both friend and lover, both artist and audience.

In How To Be Both, Ali Smith takes you on an internal journey of discovery and understanding of one’s self and the world through memory and loss; a journey shared by two characters living centuries apart, yet vitally attached to each other by both coincidence and the very essence of the human condition shared by all of us. There is no question that if you have read anything else by Ali Smith and liked it, you will love this novel. She is hard to compare to any other author, or at least I find it very hard to think of another voice that resembles hers, but it is definitely a novel that requires investment on the reader’s part. That investment is well rewarded though.



BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.