As always with Ali Smith, this book had me a little conflicted. Once I was in to it, I absolutely adored it. That much is certain. My main wish is that I, personally, had more time to read this over 1 or 2 sittings opposed to 4 or 5 days which it did take. Her writing is something that has to absolutely be consumed, it’s something that has to be done on binge setting, it’s not as easy dipping in and out as I was on bus journeys.
How to Be Both is made up of two parts. The present day, the life of George, a teenage girl whose mother has died suddenly and the other centres around the life of a 15th-century painter Francesco. The thing I didn’t realise is that the novel exists in two editions – one with George’s story first and one with Francesco’s. I personally had an edition with Francesco first. But it can be read in any order, either way around, each story references the other. I’ve also heard that if you purchase the ebook that both versions are delivered to your device! Exciting.
This novel is just a piece of art in itself. I can’t quite put my finger on it but it’s something special. It’s so easy and comforting to read. There is so much texture and colour to the writing. It’s an infinite loop, it can be read forwards or backwards or twice over. When I finished it, I went back and read a little of the start, just to see if it was an ouroboros of a novel and it was. It just slipped so seamlessly back and forth that I was pretty willing to sit and read it all again.
The title I was a bit dubious about, I think I was expecting something very different. But nonetheless, it was amazing. I didn’t realise how many times the “how to be both” cropped up, it was subtle and unassuming. It was just amazing.
“Past or present? George says. Male or female? It can’t be both. It must be one or the other.
Who says? Why must it? Her mother says.”
This isn’t perfect, not by any stretch of the word but it was definitely ambitious. I feel that it was more ambitious than The Accidental. It was about art and love and friendship, but it was so much more than just that. Her writing always feels like more. The stream of consciousness may be quite a bare, exposed way to write but it felt indulgent.
I can’t wait to reread this already, as I said, I think I may read it the other way around and see how it changes how I perceive it. I think I may have read this more quickly had I have had George’s modern day first, Smith has an unconventional writing style but it seemed to be even more pronounced and clunky in Francesco’s 15th century story. It was amazing, but I think I may have benefited having ‘eased’ in to it, rather than being thrust in to it!
But 5/5. Seriously. How can I not. It’s Ali Smith.