Book Review: Ali Smith’s How to be both (fiction)

How to Be BothHow to Be Both by Ali Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m bowled over by this book.

I had no expectations and hadn’t heard anything about it. Neither did the cover photo of the singers Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy give me an idea of what I’d encounter. The initial theme, of grief and losing a family member, is well-worn in literature, TV and movies; and a teenage girl is not who I’d naturally connect with as the narrator.

But I found myself not only immediately drawn into the story but delighted and confused: the narrative voice seemed so real, intriguing and charismatic that my reading slowed down. It was as if I couldn’t read faster than the action itself, my brain was taking extra time to absorb and try to make sense of what was happening. I was observing an interesting mind at work, in an unfamiliar culture (how young people think and interact with the world) in a situation unfamiliar to me (losing a parent at a young age).

Then suddenly, the narrative stops. A new one begins, not a teenage girl, now, but an artist of the Renaissance in the 1460s whose voice literally swirls through the page in a different shape and with different styling : and the artist, Francesco del Cossa, is hovering, observing the girl, George, who is observing the artist’s paintings. It would be disorienting if it didn’t feel already somewhat the way that I, as a reader, was observing George, hovering and intrigued. Francesco’s story is then told, interspersed with the way the artist is checking in with the girl, and I still smile to myself, the idea that the iPad is interpreted as a votive table, perhaps combined with the first Camera Oscura.

Perhaps to traverse so much time between the reader and character, the writing is showier than before; while we might not know how to imagine Italy in the 1460s, the images and descriptions are both clear and elegant. They transported me there. What I loved most were the descriptions of art. Often, I have not liked writers writing about artwork, and have a number of poems on my shelf by authors I otherwise love, where I feel that I’d much rather witness visual art than have it described to me. But art is described here in a general and specific way in language that excited me. A picture, Francesco explains, ‘does 2 opposing things at once … it lets the world be seen and understood… it unchains the eyes and the lives of those who see it and gives them a moment of freedom, from its world and from their world both.’ And then when explaining the intersection of ‘art and love … a matter of mouths open in cinnabar, of blackness and redness turned to velvet by assiduous grinding…’ It continues in a way that in a way that seems intellectually and emotionally astute, but makes me swoon with the beauty of its description.

In the meantime, there’s an interesting offering of themes that readers can connect with or not. While an examination of gender and gender identity is probably the strongest theme, it’s treated in such an interesting way, and there are so many more sub-themes and turns and twists. I was amused that what I connected with most viscerally was something the artist goes through: a period of time I’d rather forget with managers with the ugliest of characters and souls and me trying to be valued and paid for my work. Suddenly, here it was presented on the page in an unexpected form.

The biggest surprise was after finishing the book and finding out that half were printed with the story of the artist at the start followed by the story of the young woman; and the other vice versa. I wonder if I can be patient and forget enough of the story and get my hands on one of those other versions… How crazy and bold! I could have had such a different experience, just by chance and at this moment, I can’t figure out how I would have interpreted the book with the parts reversed. That blows my mind.

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