How to be both by Ali Smith (review)

I bought Ali Smith’s latest novel, How to be both, back at the end of September with a view to reading it at Christmas. Time got the better of me over the holidays, but in a way I’m glad I had it for the dark days in January as it turned out to be a delight from start to finish.

How to be both, is divided into two parts, both titled ‘one’. The overall narrative consists of two interconnected stories: in one, we encounter a sixteen-year-old girl named George whose mother has recently died; in the other, we meet Francescho, a figure based on a real-life 15th-century Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa. The book has been published in such a way that brings an element of chance to the reading experience. Half the copies of How to be both have been printed with George’s section of the narrative first followed by Francescho’s, while in the remaining 50% of copies the order is reversed.

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In my version of the novel, the narrative starts with George’s story. We join her on New Year’s Eve a few months after her mother’s sudden death from an acute allergic reaction. George lives with her father and younger brother, Henry, and it’s clear that each member of the family is finding it difficult to come to terms with their loss.

One of the things I like about Ali Smith is her ability to create young characters that are interesting and believable. George is no exception; she is smart, inquisitive, a stickler for grammar and thoroughly likeable with it. Through George, Smith perfectly captures the sense of loss and absence that follows the death of a parent. When a loved one dies they remain alive in our thoughts blurring the boundary between life and death. Consequently, George has to keep reminding herself that her mother is dead: ‘But I’m not, her mother says. Said. That was then. This is now […] Her mother’s now not anything.’

George’s story is full of memories of her mother, and central to this section is the account of a trip the pair take to Italy to see a piece of artwork in its natural state. This visit, prompted by a photo George’s mother has seen in an art magazine, forms the main link with the other section of Smith’s novel as the artwork in question is one of Francescho’s frescos.

Here’s George with her mother as they view the frescos in a Palazzo in Ferrara. The frescos are teeming with life, like ‘a giant comic strip’:

There are unicorns pulling a chariot here and lovers kissing there, and people with musical instruments here, people working up trees and in fields there. There are cherubs and garlands, crowds of people, women working at what looks like a loom up there, and down here there are eyes looking out of a black archway while people talk and do business and don’t notice the looking. (pg. 50, Hamish Hamilton)

That’s just a small extract from the wonderful description of these frescos.

As the weeks pass, George finds some comfort in the form of friendship with Helena, a girl from school who shares her budding interest in art as a form of expression. When tasked with a school assignment on empathy and sympathy, the two girls decide to capture it through the voice of Francesco del Cossa, the painter of the frescos George’s mother loved so much. It is entirely possible that the other section of the book, Francescho’s story, is a figment of George and Helena’s imagination. Nothing is clear though and Smith leaves this open to the interpretation of the reader.

As George’s section draws to a close, there are signs of hope. She begins to imagine a future, a vision of a summer where she finds her father happily going about his business instead of resorting to drink. In addition, there’s an intriguing link to del Cossa which acts as an introduction to the other half of the book.

Francescho’s story comes in the form of a first-person narrative, a voice I found utterly engaging from the start. Early in this section, we learn that Francescho is in fact female. When her father recognises young Francescho’s talent for drawing, he encourages her to adopt a male identity thereby enabling her to fulfil her desire to work as an artist.

During this half of the novel, we follow Francescho’s progress as she develops her trade. In time, she is appointed to paint three sections of fresco in a certain Palazzo, the one visited many years later by George and her mother. There is a playful, subversive note to Francescho’s art as she incorporates the faces of her family members and much-loved friends into these frescos. Furthermore, she cannot resist the occasional spot of political satire, an activity that provides another link to George’s story – before her death, George’s mother was an early pioneer of the Subvert movement, an underground group that used art as a form of political activism.

In an intriguing development to Francescho’s narrative, it would appear that her spirit has been sent to observe George in the present day, and these passages are threaded through the story of Francescho’s own life in 15th-century Italy. This might sound confusing and tricksy, but far from it. It all comes together beautifully.

As one might expect, Francescho finds certain aspects of 21st-century life rather baffling. That said, her observations are rather astute. Can you tell what she’s thinking about here?

…cause this place is full of people who have eyes and choose to see nothing, who all talk into their hands as they peripatate and all carry these votives, some of the size of a hand, some the size of a face or a whole head, dedicated to saints perhaps or holy folk, and they look or talk or pray to these tablets or icons all the while by holding them next to their heads or stroking them with fingers and staring only at them, signifying they must be heavy in their despairs to be so consistently looking away from their world and so devoted to their icons. (pgs. 229-230)

At first Francescho mistakes George for a boy and this play on gender provides another link between the two parts of this novel. Irrespective of her initial mistake, Francescho clearly senses that George is grieving for the loss of a loved one:

This boy I am sent for some reason to shadow knows a door he can’t pass through and what it tells me just to be near him is something akin to when you find the husk of a ladybird that has been trapped, killed and eaten by a spider, and what you thought on first sight was a charming thing, a colourful creature of the world going about its ways, is in reality a husk hollowed out and proof of the brutal leavings of life. (pg. 229)

If it’s not clear by now then I should say that I liked this book very much. Like its protagonists, it’s clever, brimming with ideas and yet it’s easy to engage with too. The writing is wonderful and Smith conveys much warmth and affection for these characters. I thoroughly enjoyed both parts, but I found Francescho’s voice especially captivating – her character comes with a language and syntax all of her own.

With a title like How to be both, it’s probably no surprise that duality is at the heart of this novel, and Smith uses this theme to create multiple connections between the two parts. I’ve already touched on the links between life and death and questions of gender, but there are other examples too. The frescos act as a metaphor for the story we can see on the surface and what might be revealed if we endeavour to dig a little deeper and look underneath. At various points the stories touch on the act of observation and surveillance: the observer and the observed; the act of seeing and being seen.

Finally, Smith’s love of art is plainly evident and the novel has something to say on our responses to art, how the form can evoke certain feelings and enrich our lives in various ways. I’ll finish with a quote on this theme as George considers one of Del Cossa’s paintings in a London art gallery:

Today what she sees is the way the rockscape on one side of the saint is broken, rubbly, as if not yet developed, and on the other side has transformed into buildings that are rather grand and fancy.

It is as if just passing from one side of the saint to the other will result if you go one way in wholeness and if you go the other in brokenness.

Both states are beautiful. (pg. 158)

Several other bloggers have reviewed this book including bookemstevo, Eric at Lonesome ReaderGemma at The Perfectionist Pen and anakatony at Tony’s Book World.

Francesco del Cossa’s frescos can be viewed in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.

How to be both is published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books. Source: personal copy. Book 8/20 in my #TBR20.

60 thoughts on “How to be both by Ali Smith (review)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I’m really glad you enjoyed it too. Yes, it’s very clever, but without feeling tricksy in any way – that’s quite a feat to pull off, I think.

      Reply
  1. susanosborne55

    Brilliant review, Jacqui. For some reason the alternative narrative orders had passed me by. I wonder if your reading of it would have been different if you’d read the other version.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. I’ve been thinking about the order, and it’s difficult to know. The final section of George’s story offers an introduction to Francescho so this version of the novel works very well as it seems to flow quite naturally. Even though I found Francescho’s voice utterly captivating (and it was probably my favorite of the two sections by a nose) I wonder whether I’d have ‘got’ certain aspects of Francescho’s part if I hadn’t read George’s story first. For instance, the sections where Francescho is observing George: I think I might have found those a little confusing at first (or at the very least missed some of the connections with George’s narrative). Who knows! Do you think you’ll read it?

      Reply
  2. Max Cairnduff

    That’s very timely, as I was just considering whether to get this (it was £2.80 on UK Kindle yesterday, though today it’s back to £9.62 so I may wait a little bit).

    For some reason Ali Smith has totally passed me by, but this does sound a delight. Also, I’ve spent fair chunks of time looking at frescoes like that on holiday, so I can easily imagine it. Besides, the votive quote is marvellous.

    On the Kindle they have both versions and you chose which order you want apparently. When I get it I’ll roll a die to determine, it seems it should be random.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Damn, you should have snapped it up yesterday! I think you might like this one, Max, especially given your interest in frescoes. I’ve read quite a few of Ali Smith’s novels, but this is my favourite (and a good one to start with, I think). The votive quote is great, isn’t it…and the one where Francescho likens George to a husk hollowed out by grief.

      Good idea to leave the order to chance. For some reason I thought my copy started with Francescho’s section, turns out I had the other version…

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    I love reading your commentary Jacqui. You really seem to get to what is important is a book.

    This sounds appealing for alot of reasons. I like the exploration of duality as well as the connection with art. Though novels that take place in different time periods are very common these days, it sounds like there is some originality involved here.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thank you, Brian – that’s very generous of you to say. I think it’s a very clever novel in the way it looks at so many different aspects of duality, and I loved the connection to art. It’s a novel bursting with interesting ideas, and yet it never feels crowded or tricksy in any way. Ali Smith is an original writer, and she seems genuinely interested in doing something different with the novel as a form. It never feels as if it’s innovation for innovation’s sake though…I found it such an engaging book to read.

      Reply
  4. lonesomereadereric

    Wonderful to read your thoughts Jacqui! I can feel from reading your review how much you connected with this book. You really get at the central themes of what make this novel so great and beautiful. She describes George’s mourning for her mother so powerfully – not in an outward flow of despair but an everpresent weight of loss. I think Smith gets mourning so well – as she did in her novel Artful as well.

    By the way, did you know the painting St Vincent Ferrer by Francesco del Cossa can be seen at the National Gallery in London? I took a trip there especially to see it and look at it. Of course, I’d love to one day see the frescos in Ferrara as well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, thank you, Eric. I’m glad that came through as it’s quite a difficult book to do justice to. Yes, you’re absolutely right, Smith catches that sense of grief so well, the feeling of loss as George tries to come to terms with what’s happening to her. I think she gets what it’s like to be a teenager in that situation too: what it feels like when you encounter well-meaning adults who try their best to sympathise or help but never quite know how to connect. It sounds as if you’ve reviewed this one – apologies, as I must have missed it. I’ll head over to yours to add a link to your review.

      Yes, I did know about the del Cossa painting in the National Gallery (and I think it’s the one George is contemplating in that final quote). It sounds wonderful, definitely on my list of things to see the next time I’m in central London. A trip to Ferrara would be lovely too!

      Reply
      1. lonesomereadereric

        It is a very difficult book to review so I admire how well you explained it & captured its spirit. Yes, she does get that teenage POV so well – a girl who is intelligent and so creative, but also (because she’s a teen) has some cynicism and arrogance to overcome. What felt so heartbreaking was when George was thinking back to discussions/arguments with her mother I could feel her remorse at times for the way they sometimes fought or disagreed – and it’s only later when she’s gone she realized how her mother was trying to connect with her and tell her something important.
        Thanks for linking to my playfully schizophrenic reviewish thing.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          You’re very welcome, Eric – I love how your piece mirrors the novel’s duality and playful tone!

          Yes, I completely agree with you on George….and the tense thing really got to me: where she has to correct herself (said, not says; had, not has) because she forgets her mother is no longer alive. It’s heartbreaking.

          Reply
  5. My Book Strings

    I am so intrigued by the fact that the order of the two sections is mixed up. I wonder how that might affect the reading of the novel. I’m looking forward to reading it myself, hopefully sooner rather than later. (And look, you are almost halfway through your #TBR20. :) )

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know, I wondered about the order effect too. As I was saying to Susan, George’s story contains an introduction to Francescho so this version of the novel works really well as it seems to flow very naturally. It’s a neat link. I’d love to hear what you think of this novel so I’ll keep an eye out for your review.

      Yes, I’m getting through my #TBR20 (picking books as I go along), and I’m reading book twelve right now. My reviews are all out of order though as I still need to post on book number six. I doubt whether I’ll review them all as I’ve got a wee bit of a backlog, but number six is on my to do list!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There are times when I feel the same way about a particular book…if it doesn’t grab you then there’s little point, especially when there are so many other books around.

      Reply
  6. Naomi

    The structure of this book sounds so interesting and original. I will have to add it to my list just for that. It really makes me wonder how your reading and review might have been different if you’d read the other version. Great review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The structure is very interesting, possibly unique as I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it before. There’s a sense of originality and freshness about Francescho’s voice too, I found it very captivating. It’s a novel full of interesting ideas and passages, and yet it never feels weighed down (or too intellectual for its own good which could have been a danger). I think it would make a fascinating choice for book groups as there would be plenty to discuss: not just the themes and characters, but the structure/order too.

      I’ve been thinking about the order effect, and I just don’t know how I would have reacted if I’d read the two sections in reverse order. In a way, I’m quite glad I started with George as her trip to Italy to see the frescos provides some context for Francescho’s story. You’ll have to let me know how you get on should you read it (and I’ll be interested to hear which version you get!).

      Reply
  7. Kate

    I read this last year and really enjoyed it. My copy had George’s story first too, and I think that must have affected my reading of it. I loved how Smith played with ideas of duality throughout the novel – both women being mistaken for men was something I found especially interesting because those seemingly very different societies have similar ideas about gender roles. Great review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Kate. Glad you enjoyed it and it’s interesting to hear that you started with George’s story too. The gender theme is fascinating, isn’t it? You’re right, Smith plays with it and there are two or three instances where I think she’s saying that a person’s gender or sexuality shouldn’t matter (or get in the way of their feelings or goals in life). That’s a great point about the parallels between these two very different societies, how they’re both grappling with similar issues. It makes you wonder just how much has changed over time…

      Reply
  8. gertloveday

    I’ve never warmed to Ali Smith but perhaps I should give this a go. It has been listed for the 2015 Folio Prize, I erad recently, along with Dept of Speculation and the latest Rachel Cusk and All My Puny Sorrows, among others.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really liked it, especially Francescho’s distinctive narrative voice. I am an Ali Smith fan, but this one feels a little different to the others I’ve read so it might be worth giving it a go. I’m pleased to see it on the shortlist for the Folio Prize even though I haven’t read any of the other shortlisted titles. How to be both also won the Goldsmiths Prize for original fiction last year (and the Costa for best novel) so it probably stands a good chance in the Folio.

      Reply
  9. Gemma

    Thank you for the kind mention and link Jacqui :) I enjoyed reading your review, and glad you enjoyed the book. I love what you said about Francescho’s story potentially being a figment of George and Helena’s imagination – this hadn’t occurred to me at all, and now that idea has added a whole other aspect to the novel for me. I might just have to reread it! I also agree with your thoughts about everything coming together beautifully; the different versions could have impacted negatively on the story, but I think it actually enhances it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Gemma. Smith leaves it open, but I think it’s a possible reading of the novel (by no means the only one though). I wonder whether it would have occurred to me at all had I started with Francescho’s section? Possibly not! The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to believe that Francescho’s section isn’t the output from George and Helena’s assignment as it seems so accomplished. It’s an intriguing thought though, perhaps another example of Smith’s playfulness.

      Reply
      1. Gemma

        It’s definitely a possibility! I think the fact that there can be various interpretations of the novel which come about based on which story we read first is such a clever element to the novel. I wonder too whether I’d have a different interpretation if the stories had been the other way around (my copy had Francescho’s story first).

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I enjoyed it very much. Having won last year’s Goldsmith Prize (which recognises original fiction) it’s now up for the Folio Prize. Nice to see it getting the recognition I think it deserves.

      Reply
  10. Séamus Duggan

    This sounds more and more like a must read each time I read about it. I know I have some other Ali Smith’s somewhere on my shelves (unread) but, but… And it would be interesting to compare with B.S.Johnson’s The Unfortunates which allows you even more choice in terms of reading order and is one of the books I am considering reading next.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved it, Seamus, and I think it’s my favourite of the Ali Smith novels I’ve read so far. The B.S. Johnson is new to me so I’ll have to look it up. Talking about books that offer choice in terms of reading order, the other one that’s just occurred to me is Chris Ware’s Building Stories. I haven’t read it, but it comes as a box of 12 or so graphic stories centred on the inhabitants of an apartment block and the individual sections can be read in any order. A friend has a copy, and it looks fantastic.

      Reply
      1. Séamus Duggan

        B.S.Johnson’s The Unfortunates also comes in a box. The first and last chapters are marked but you read the others whatever way you want. He wanted to reflect the random way memories are recalled (and have a good gimmick!). It’s considered his masterpiece.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Haha! How interesting. There’s something in that idea though: the random way memories are triggered and come to mind. I’ll look out for your review of that one as it sounds as if it’s nearing the top of your to-read pile.

          Reply
            1. Lisa Hill

              Oh, don’t be scared! Just pick it up and read it. Don’t worry about anything that doesn’t make sense, just read it.
              It wasn’t written for academics to write PhDs, it was written for us, ordinary readers. IMO the only thing you need to know that in each chapter Joyce is writing in a different style, e.g. one is written like newspaper reporting, one is written like the Bible.
              But if you do want to crib things that puzzle you, there is heaps of stuff around the web to help you. You can visit http://anzlitlovers.com/tag/ulysses-disordered-thoughts-of-an-amateur/ which is my chapter-by-chapter 4th reading of it and has links to all sorts of stuff that I found as I was going along. (I read one chapter each month as part of a readalong). But I didn’t have any of that when I read it the first three times, and I still loved it.

              Reply
  11. litlove

    Wonderful review, Jacqui! I have this to read and hope to get to it very soon. I love Ali Smith’s writing. I think it’s rare to come across an innovative, experimental writer who does it all so playfully, so engagingly, rather than bashing the reader over the head with postmodern craziness. I’d love her just for that!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Victoria. I’m so with you on this! I love Ali Smith’s writing, too. How to be both could have been too clever and tricksy for its own good, but it isn’t like that at all….none of that postmodern craziness here. I found it an absolute delight! Hope you enjoy it, and I’d love to hear what you think. I’ll keep an eye out for your review (if you decide to write about it).

      Reply
  12. Emma

    The idea is original. I’d rather not choose the copy I’d read, I like the idea of chance.
    I wonder how she managed to write something that can be read both ways.
    I’m intrigued.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s very intriguing, isn’t it? Ali Smith’s a very talented writer and interested in doing something new and different with the novel. After I’d written my post, I listened to an interview where she talked about using the concept of a fresco for novel’s structure. Underneath a fresco’s surface, there’s another version in the form of under-drawings and these may or may not be connected to the surface images. An understory, if you like. Both stories are there, but it raises questions as to which story comes first: the one we see on the surface or the one that lies beneath.

      It’s a very interesting concept for a novel, and I think she pulls it off. It never feels like innovation for innovation’s sake though. As you say, best leave the order to chance if you do decide to read it (I’d love to hear your thoughts on it).

      Reply
      1. Emma

        I’m glad to hear it’s not innovation for the sake of innovation.
        What you say about the underdrawing reminds me of these paintings by Dali where you see an overall picture made of tiny details (or Arcimboldo)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, yes. I know what you mean! I’ve seen something similar to the understory theme in other paintings too: where the artist has painted an image on top of a set of drawings, but the two scenes show very different things. Sometimes it’s possible to see elements of both if the surface painting is unfinished.

          Reply
  13. MarinaSofia

    I think it’s a very clever experiment – and more of this should be encouraged in fiction being published today (but probably it wouldn’t have been if she hadn’t already established a name for herself). Haven’t read it yet, but it’s one that intrigues me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it? And it’s great to see it getting the recognition I think it deserves. Hopefully, it will encourage other writers to experiment and innovate in meaningful ways. One of the things I love about it is that it never feels too smart for its own good (which could have been a pitfall). It’s so engaging and readable. I’d love to know what you think of it.

      Reply
      1. MarinaSofia

        Michele Robert’s Flesh and Blood is also an experimental novel which works really well – the story of a mother and daughter, each one telling her side of the story, and you piece the two parts together as if fastening a zipper.

        Reply
  14. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  15. Elena

    I’ve heard only wonderful things about this book, and yet I didn’t know that there are two versions of it. However, there is something about the book that doesn’t really call my attention. I don’t know why. You all write about Smith’s great writing, and so on, so I should give it a try. Thank you for a wonderful review :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m a fan of Ali Smith’s work, but this is my favourite of her novels. I think she’s doing something genuinely interesting with the novel form here (and it’s almost worth reading for that alone), but the writing and characterisation really make it work. I know what you mean though as there are times when a particular book doesn’t grab me either (despite very positive reports from a range of reviewers).

      Reply
  16. Scott W.

    This came very highly recommended from another fellow reader with outstanding taste, but I knew nothing about the content before reading your post on it – which only amplifies my interest in reading it. I wonder if there are readers who bought two copies, just to have the two different editions? But then there would be the same problem of which copy to read first… a little like Evan Connell’s novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really loved this one, Scott. And look, there’s a link to Italy in the form of Francescho’s frescos! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this novel should you decide to give it a go.

      I suspect some readers might have bought both copies especially if they were lucky enough to find first editions. The reading order dilemma is an interesting one, isn’t it? George followed by Francescho worked for me, and I wonder how I would have reacted to the novel had I read the other version. It feels as if the order should be left to chance though…

      I absolutely love the Bridges! Mrs. Bridge would be on my list of favourite novels…prose so precise and insightful it pierces like a knife.

      Reply
  17. 1streading

    I actually got an early copy of this at the Edinburgh Book Festival (well, Ali Smith was hanging around the book tent and I wanted it signed) – so early that I had no idea there were two different versions. It reminds me of Alasdair Gray’s comment on Lanark about wanting it read in one order but thought of in another. I suppose in this case the idea is that the stories are in a loop, each one both preceding and following the other.
    What I love about Smith is that she is clever, but is such a light hearted way!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I love that light-heartedness too; I guess that’s what I was trying to get at with my comments about it being smart, brimming with ideas but also very engaging. A loop is a good way of thinking of it! Have you read it yet? I’m also keen to know which version you ended up with.

      How wonderful to find Ali Smith hanging around the book tent at the Edinburgh fest! She comes across as a very warm and approachable person (from audio interviews I’ve listened to).

      Reply
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