I cannot express my love for the wonderful Ali Smith enough. Every book of hers that I read makes me more and more happy and content, and leaves me with a serious desire to read everything she’s ever written – which is not a normal urge for me. In general, I am often quite happy to just read one or two books from any author, no matter how good I felt they were, and this can even be the case with books that are part of a series. Therefore for me, Ali Smith is up there with Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro!
How To Be Both is something of an interesting read from the get go. Split into two narratives: one from the point of view of George, a young girl living after the death of her mother; and the other from view of the fourteenth century painter, Francesco del Cossa. I wasn’t aware until I read this review from The Guardian, but depending on which book you select, the narratives are switched, although you can’t know which version you have until you open it because they are identical on the outside.
And this doubling, and the not-quite-knowing, is a central theme in the book. There’s a constant play with gender, roles, and knowing who and what the characters are. George has a boy’s name, but is a girl, she’s discovering her sexuality, but is still lost in herself after the death of her mother and so nothing is clear. Francesco del Cossa is a woman, but pretends to be a man, and her painted figures are sometimes not identifiable as either man or woman, and she should be dead.
I honestly loved George. She’s clearly still going through the grief that comes with losing a parent, as are her father and little brother. Smith brings us bits of her relationship with her mother in memories that connect seamlessly and dreamily with the present-day narrative, and everything is recounted in a fond, enjoyable way that pulls you in. George is smart, there’s no doubt about that, and her relationship with her intelligent mother is reflective of this, but it’s wrapped up in the comforting and funny conversations that they have which seem genuine and familiar from the very smart. And don’t get me started on her relationship with Helen – we never know if they’ll be together romantically, but the gentleness and playfulness between them made me happy that they just new each other!
Francesco Del Cossa recounts her life in the fourteenth century and Smith’s rendering of life at this time is very engaging – I’m speaking as someone who generally doesn’t go for historical literature. She’s clearly done a lot of research into painting, life and society in fourteenth century Italy, and it means that everything seems, well, normal. Not by comparison to now of course, but again there’s that familiarity again which makes me feel so comfortable. Del Cossa, though, deals with life (and death) from the point of view of an adult, which is a nice contrast to read – and thankfully doesn’t make George seem like some sort of wailing child as I often see happen when adults and young people are compared.
As I’ve constantly been hinting, one reason that I loved this book is that it’s so kind. There’s a genuine sense of compassion in this book, that Smith cares about her characters, that they’re human, and that they have feelings too. She deals with serious topics like death, sexuality, sorrow, family relationships – and even pornography at one point, but she does it with such a sensitive style that they don’t burden the book, they enhance it.
It’s also, I should add, very experimental – not just with the two narratives but with the typography at times which just adds another level of intrigue (my lit student soul was singing throughout this novel)!
And if you want more intrigue then there’s also the speculation surrounding George’s mother, a ‘subvert’ against the government, and her connection to the mysterious Lisa Goliard…
If you haven’t guessed already, I’d give this book 5 stars without any hesitation.
Other wonderful books that I’ve read by Ali Smith include:
– Girl Meets Boy
– First Person and Other Stories
– There But For The