Review: How to be both by Ali Smith

“A renaissance artist of the 1460s. A child of a child of the 1960s.

Two tales of live and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, knowing gets mysterious, fiction gets real – and all life’s givens get given a second chance.”

Ali Smith How to be both

Split in to two distinct sections, this book follows George, who is searching for meaning in her mother’s recent death, and Francescho, a painter in the 1460s looking for greater recognition for their work. Linking the two characters is a fresco painted by Francescho, with which George’s mother was fascinated, taking George to Italy to view it in person.

This novel can be read in two ways; either George’s story first, followed by Francescho’s, or Francescho’s story followed by George’s. The aim of this being, that whichever way you read the novel, you will interpret the narrative differently. Interestingly, it appears from reviews, that the majority of readers prefer the character whose story appears first in their copy of the book. I was no different. My copy starts with George, who I found to be raw and vulnerable in the wake of her mother’s death, struggling with trying to support her younger brother and father, while I found Francescho’s story to be more chaotic and Francescho him/herself to be hard to follow, which perhaps was the point, nevertheless, I enjoyed it far less.

For me, the concept of this novel was amazing; it challenged everything that a novel could be. It is structurally exciting – who knows which copy you’ll end up reading and what you’ll interpret from it as a result. It also challenged punctuational norms, often using colons instead of commas, and stopping sentences halfway through to start another, using vertical space as well as horizontal, spiralling the words down the page. It also highlights just how deep a narrative can go; rather than just one story taking place at one time, it interlinks the present with the past and demonstrates how a mural can actually be a living, breathing piece of history, revealing the truths of a painter’s life, with Francescho recounting at one point:

I painted my brothers.
I painted the figure of my mother resplendent.
I painted a ram with the look of my father.
In these ways I filled the Marquis’s months with those who had people my own on the earth.

HOWEVER, I found that both Francescho and George’s narratives fell a little flat. While their characters were nuanced and both were likeable, the plots were lacklustre. To me, it seemed that Ali Smith spent more time focusing on the structural message she was sending with her writing, than the narrative itself, and for this reason, I ended up enjoying it less and less as I progressed. For this reason, I’ve given How to be both 3 stars overall. Nonetheless, I would recommend that you give this a read, purely to see how the traditional concept of a novel can be used to send a message you never even considered. I have also heard that her other novels, such as The Accidental, focus more on the characters and plot than this one does, so I am excited to read that before I make any concrete judgements.

Star rating: ***