Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith

How To Be BothI have been a big fan of Ali Smith’s work for a number of years, having discovered her when I picked up her 1999 short story collection Other Stories and Other Stories. I loved it and indeed the book blog I ran for a few years was called Other Stories in its honour. I was never not going to read her latest work, How To Be Both, but an added bonus was that I bought my copy at a wonderful event with Ali Smith herself in Oxford in September this year. Hearing her talk about her motivation in writing it was hugely inspiring, and her readings from the book were really very moving.

How To Be Both is split into two sections. One, which follows the fresco artist Francesco del Cossa, takes place in mid-15th century Italy, while the other, following a teenaged girl called George, takes place in Cambridge in 2013. The two are interconnected throughout: George and her mother visit a fresco painted by Francesco del Cossa, while Francesco’s spirit (ghost?) is drawn to George. But that basic description is a very simplistic version of events. As the title suggests, the novel is a study in the dual. A dual narrative structure. Two characters with ambiguous gender or sexual identity (George’s friendship with a female schoolfriend may or may not turn into something more; Francesco del Cossa is born female but binds her chest and lives as a man). Two basic time frames but both of which duck and weave and jump in and out of the now and the memory and the future.

As with pretty much all of Smith’s writing, the plot is not the thing here, but the form. While I listened to her talk at the bookshop event, I was put in mind of Kate Tempest, who had just been in the news as the first person to have been nominated for both a poetry prize and a music award for her combination of spoken word, rap, and poetry. Ali Smith mentioned her herself. Form does not have to be a single thing, but can be many things at once. The 15th century section of the novel flits between prose and poetry, the uncertain nature of our narrator making that combination work in a way that would have been less appropriate in the ‘George’ section. That section is more straightforward in its prose, but remains lyrical and light even when dealing with the heaviest of issues, like the death of George’s mum. The words dance.

In-keeping with this idea of everything happening both separately and concurrently is that which section of the book comes first depends on which copy you pick up. Some start with 2013 before shifting back to 1460, which others are the other way round. Both sections are numbered ‘one’. My copy opened with Francesco’s narrative and when I had read that and started on George’s I was initially smug. I felt like I’d read it the “best” way round. It all fitted, it all flowed. But then by the end of George’s narrative I found myself wanting to go back and read Francesco’s again. That both sections work so beautifully in and of themselves, and one after the other, and irregardless of which section you read first is actually a really staggering achievement.

How To Be Both is both fiction and non-fiction. Francesco del Cossa was real and so is his fresco in Ferrara. Whether he was born female and chose to live as a man, no one could know as very little information exists about him. That is where the fiction takes over. It is also about knowing and not knowing. The reader both knows more than the narrators and an awful lot less. It is about being and living and also about not being and dying. The whole book is just masterful and quite extraordinary.

Ali Smith: How To Be Both (London: Penguin, 2014) ISBN 9780241145210 RRP £16.99

4 comments on “How To Be Both by Ali Smith

  1. Angela Young
    November 26, 2014

    I’m so looking forward to reading this … but I’m waiting for the paperback because I’m a bit broke at the moment (think it’s end of next spring, but perhaps they’ll bring it forward now it’s Costa shortlisted). Thank you for an intriguing tempting review.

  2. Kate
    November 26, 2014

    I’ve heard so much about this novel. I’ve never felt quite comfortable reading her stories. When we were at university together I never got her thinking quite right, she was streets, cities, ahead of me, though we were good friends for years. I’ve tried her short stories, I like her essays though they are scary stuff on an empty brain, I’ve read The Accidental and hated it while admiring it immensely. But this one feels different, I could give this one a go. So I will: thanks for the extra nudge that tipped me over!

  3. Jackie
    November 28, 2014

    This sounds very interesting and I like the idea of exploring gender identities in such a way.And flashbacks to the 15th century are certainly unique. I’d never heard of the artist, so I followed the included link in your review and was impressed. I especially like his stained glass window designs.
    Hope I can find this in the library, as I’d like to read words that dance. Reading this review was like looking through fine crystal. Well done!

  4. The Untranslated
    November 30, 2014

    Thanks for this interesting review. The concept actually reminded me of Milorad Pavic’s two-sided novel The Inner Side of the Wind in which the protagonists of each story live in different time frames, and “meet” at the middle of the book. A similar idea drives Mikhail Shishkin’s The Light and the Dark, but instead of two separate stories enriching each other, we have a sort of “correspondence” between characters, one living at the beginning of the 20th century, and the other in the second half.

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This entry was posted on November 26, 2014 by in Entries by Kirsty D, Fiction, Fiction: literary and tagged , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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