Book Review: How to be Both

Thursday 14 May 2015 by

How to be Both, Ali Smith, Book, Penguin, Bailey's PrizeHow to be Both by Ali Smith

Published by Penguin

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

Two tales of love 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’s How to be Both has had some high accolades and garnered huge attention for its unusual structure. Now, nominated for the Bailey’s Prize, it is my turn to read it.

The reading is a mix of chance – split in to two parts, it is mere luck which way around you read them. For me, it was George first. George is a teenager, suddenly finding herself motherless and swamped with grief. She battles to find meaning in her life, reflecting on a recent trip to Italy to view a fresco but a mystery artist and the unusual character of Lisa Goliard.

The story is told in hesitating stream of consciousness, often confusing and twisting. But it is poetic, raw and honest. There is charm.

The second half is told from the point of view of Francescho, the artist who painted a large part of the fresco that George looks at. But rather than through Francescho’s eyes as a living person, we see Francescho watch George as a spirit. His (and I use the word “his” loosely for reasons that will become clear when you read the book) bafflement at the modern world, and his stream of consciousness flows back and forth between living and death. Small parts of his life are revealed, and yet it remains as mysterious as before.

There is good reason for the high praise for this book. But I think a lot of it comes from its structure and style; it’s a unique concept and well executed – as any book by Ali Smith promises. But beyond that, the plot is a simple one. Even the twist is easily found when you know to look for it. It takes some time getting used to the style, but once you do it is a pleasant read. Smith is a writer that delivers – in whatever form you read it.

It is, however, such a book that reviewing it (or even explaining what it’s about) is nigh on impossible. If you are one of the few that has yet to read it, it only needs picking up to understand its scope and ambition.

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