How to Be Both: Ali Smith

How to Be Both: Ali Smith

Title: How to Be Both

Author: Ali Smith

Review by Isabella Cipirska

When Ali Smith’s seventh novel, How to Be Both, was released in paperback version earlier this year, it was reprinted with its numerous accolades listed on the front cover. These were (deep breath): the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize, the novel award in the 2014 Costa Book Awards, the 2015 Folio Prize and the 2015 Baileys Women’s prize for fiction. It was also shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. So what exactly is the award-winning appeal of her most acclaimed novel so far?

On paper, it may not seem immediately obvious. The novel is divided into two halves: one follows a depressed and confused teenager, George, living in modern day Cambridge, Smith’s adopted hometown. The other follows the life – and post-life – of an obscure fresco painter Francesco del Cossa from Renaissance Italy, who finds himself hurled into the twenty-first century more than five hundred years after his death. The story that follows is delivered in an experimental, unconventional style, weaving in a whole array of postmodern techniques and subject matter: it is a story about telling stories, about time, about chronology, that complicates and challenges each of these concepts. It is a self-conscious reflection on art – on why we need it, what it can do for us.

Yet the success of the novel is that is manages to explore all of these ideas in an intriguing and unusual style without ever becoming alienating, densely theoretical or carried away with its own cleverness. In fact, the novel is buoyed along by a lightness, a playfulness, that lures the reader irresistibly along for the ride.

A tale of two halves

Ali Smith

Ali Smith: ‘We are massively contradictory.’

One of the most interesting things about the novel is its structure. The order in which you read the two halves of the story depends entirely on which copy of the book you happen to pick up in the bookshop: half are printed with George’s story first and the other half with Del Cossa’s. Part of the magic is that, as numerous other readers have also attested too, no matter which half you start with, it’s impossible to come away without the smug sense that you, really, have read it the ‘right’ way or the ‘best’ way round. Although of course you can never test this theory, as it is impossible to approach the book completely afresh again.

This is just one of the ways the book’s main themes of doubling and simultaneity, encapsulated in the title How to Be Both, are explored. It is both one book and two books. Gender, as in all of Ali Smith’s works, is likewise not a simple matter of boy or girl, one or the other, and appearances can be deceiving. The number two reoccurs almost obsessively throughout: two eyes, two strings of the double helix and two fresco paintings, one on top of the other. The novel transgresses the borders of genre, refusing to fit into any one category neatly.

With this liberation from simple, constraining categorisations comes the powerful joyfulness that sings through this remarkable and strange novel – despite its reflections on death and loss, despite Del Cossa’s poignant reflections on the loneliness of being thrust into a completely foreign millennia. So why both? As Smith has commented in an interview: ‘We are multiple selves…we are massively contradictory.’ And so she celebrates embracing two possibilities at once, or multiple possibilities simultaneously, and in doing so flings open the door to a whole new way of being.

By Isabella Cipirska

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1 Comment

  1. Enjoyed reading through this, very good stuff, thanks.

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