55. ‘How to be both’ by Ali Smith

I’ve owned How to be both for a while, but it was seeing Ali Smith in conversation with Kamila Shamsie at my local Waterstones recently that inspired me to finally pick it up. I hadn’t read any Ali Smith for almost two years, and it was wonderful to re-immerse myself in the flowing stream that is Smith’s writing.

how to be both ali smith

How to be both is divided into two sections. The first follows Francesco del Cossa, a painter from Renaissance Italy who finds herself thrust back into consciousness long after her death, invisible and mysteriously tied to George, a grieving teenage girl living in contemporary England and also the narrator of the second half of the novel. These two stories, though seemingly totally alien to each other at first, deepen and twist together until timeless ideas and concerns emerge that link the two women, despite the gap of centuries between them.

As with all Smith’s work, the writing is a character in itself. It weaves and jumps and disobeys rules of punctuation and grammar to create something fluid and poetic. For the first few pages I was pretty confused (they’re written like an obscure poem) but soon a character and a plot emerges that is quite easy to follow, even though it jumps back and forth through time. The text references itself throughout, ideas appear and reappear, threads link even the most distant parts together. Given the subject matter of the story, it makes sense to compare this technique to painting, where the work is best viewed as a whole first, and as a collection of parts second. Writing is necessarily linear – one page, then the next, then the next – but somehow in How to be both Smith is able to create a painting with words.

Typical Smith-ian themes show up here, including gender and homosexuality. Francesco has to disguise herself as a man in order to have a career as a painter (a fact that is lost to history), while George forms an intense friendship-not-quite-friendship with a girl called Helena. The depictions of grief and family are particularly compelling in George’s story: she is struggling with the death of her mother, and we get to see their earlier relationship (technical, modern child vs. hippy, optimistic mother) and George’s retreat into obsession and paranoia following her death. The parent/child relationships here are very frank and believable; they demonstrate how brutally honest family members can be with one another, and also how evasive.

This is a very enjoyable, quite quick read. Smith’s unmistakable stream-of-consciousness style pulls you along, breathlessly, so that you don’t so much read this book as absorb it. And it’s well worth absorbing.

“It’s good to be seen past, as if you’re not the only one, as if everything isn’t happening just to you. Because you’re not. And it isn’t.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

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