Book Review – Ali Smith – How to be both

Reading makes me want to write. Especially when I read a good book, the kind that gets into your chest and makes you feel and makes you think and makes you wonder. I’ve read a lot of good books so far this month, hence all the book reviews!

I’d wanted to read How to be both for a while. It was constantly being talked about, reviewed, winning awards. But when I started reading How to be Both for the first time, I didn’t get very far. It’s hard when the first page looks like this:

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Especially not knowing how long this style of writing would continue for – was the whole book written like this? I put it down, started something different, came back to it on the flight to Greece. And finished it, unable to put the book down, completely engrossed.

How to Be Both

It is two stories – the story of a painter, Francisco, in Italy in the 15th century, who is not quite as he seems, and the story of a teenage girl, George, today, who’s mother has just died and whose family is falling apart. The two narratives are entirely separate and yet mingle together – George’s story begins with a trip to Italy to see frescoes painted by Francisco and involves her trying to find out more about the mysterious painter. Francisco tells the story of his life from a vantage point centuries later, as a strange force pulls him along to watch George after she has become transfixed by his painting in the National Art Gallery in London.

One part is called “Eyes” and the other is called “Camera” and the book is structured so that you can read either one first. I started with Eyes and was glad I did, despite the fact that Camera is the easier read, written more conventionally.

The writing is mesmerising. Grief is so real and so present in George’s story – her grief, the retreat of her father into alcohol, and the tears of her small brother who is only just beginning to understand what has happened to his mum. Intertwined with this is the usual teenage sense of disassociation, frustration. Technology runs through her story – in one moment she is simultaneously watching the end of a TV show on television, catching up with the start of it on her iPad and looking up something on her iPhone. Surveillance and being watched is a central theme, from the other-worldly figure of Francisco watching her, to George’s mother’s fears of government surveillance, to the bullying younger girls at school recording the sound of girls peeing in the toilets and uploading it to Facebook.

On the other hand, Francisco’s story – a re-imagining of the life of a real painter of whom very little is known – is all about seeing, and how things that look one way, might actually be another. From the figure of Francisco himself, to the subversive elements of his paintings that are only really noticeable when properly studied.

Aside from the two main characters, skilfully depicted and fleshed out, the structure of the book itself plays with the idea of the novel – the fact that it is two separate parts that can be read in whichever order the reader wishes. My kindle version had two forms of the book, in “real” books, half are sold with Camera first and half with Eyes. It’s a novel notion that means the book is entirely different depending on which story you read first. One of the central themes which arises early in the story of Francisco would be quite a twist to the tale, were you to read George’s story first, and indeed, the whole of Francisco’s story would take on a different meaning – is it real or just in George’s imagination? Her story begins with her mother asking her “Imagine it. You’re an artist” and goes on to involve a school task on empathy that see George and her friend trying to imagine what Francisco’s life might have been like.

I’ll stop there, because I think the Telegraph review puts it better than I ever could:

Despite the novel’s refusal of consolation and the profound seriousness of the questions it explores, How to be Both brims with palpable joy, not only at language, literature, and art’s transformative power, but at the messy business of being human, of wanting to be more than one kind of person at once. The possibilities unleashed by the desire to be neither one thing nor the other means that one may ever and always strive to be both. With great subtlety and inventiveness, Smith continues to expand the boundaries of the novel.

It is a novel that will leave you thinking afterwards, turning over motifs and phrases, going back to the book to re-read sections. One of the best.

p.s. As I know some people just read my blog for the book reviews, I have decided to be more scheduled with these and post a book review every second Tuesday. Apparently a thing bloggers “do” is have a catchy name for these things, like “Wordless Wednesdays, Friday Favourites, Flashback Thursdays”…. etc etc. However as no days of the week begin with B or R, I’m stumped. Any ideas?!

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2 comments

  1. Oh, I’m intrigued. I loved the first page though I wouldn’t be able to read a whole book of that, it would be taxing. But your review is great!! And now I want to read this book!! Thanks.

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