How to be Both by Ali Smith

Ali Smith’s newest novel can be read one of two ways. George, a teenage girl in contemporary Britain has to deal with the death of her mother, and reminisces about a trip to Italy she took with her where her mum fell in love with the paintings of one renaissance artist in particular, Francesco del Cossa. In another story, that same renaissance painter watches George believing herself to be in some sort of purgatory. Both George and Francesco are seen as both men and women by others. And the novel can be read from the perspective of either George or Francesco.

This is a difficult novel to explain, but it isn’t difficult to read. George is treated so sensitively by Smith; George is intelligent and sarcastic and struggling to comprehend her mother’s death. She is precocious and cagey; she is scared. Her father starts drinking heavily after her mother’s death, and George is left to look after her little brother Henry a lot of the time. Contemporary issues are examined too: including contemporary obsessions with smartphones and iPads, as seen by the protagonist from renaissance Italy.

And watching her is Francesco, who comments on George’s magical tablet. Francesco details her life: her mother died young too, and her father told her to pretend to be a boy so that she could become an artist. Francesco’s Italian renaissance life is evocatively told. She doesn’t speak in an archaic language, but she can’t understand the language that George speaks. She watches George looking at her painting. There are no real beginnings and ends in this story (or middles!), so it might not be for some people.

Smith is doing exciting things with the format of the novel in this book. I am especially drawn to her sensitivity: her willingness to be kind to her characters and the small things she picks up on make her one of the best contemporary writers, in my opinion. I like fiction that is mysterious and not a foregone conclusion. Smith handles her characters and her original storytelling with ease and eloquence. Her characters occupy murky worlds, much like our own.

I loved this book. I’ve only read one Ali Smith book prior to this, Hotel World, which was in a similar vein; playful yet looking closely at people’s thoughts, particularly regarding death. I really need to read more of Smith, particularly her short stories. How to be Both isn’t for everybody, but it is certainly for me!


5 thoughts on “How to be Both by Ali Smith

  1. crimeworm says:

    I’ve tried three Ali Smith books – this one, Hotel World, and The Accidental – and I’ve never finished any. I really want to enjoy her books – she’s a fellow Scot, after all! – but I don’t know if I’m not smart enough, or I should have persevered longer. So many people enjoy her books, and I wish I could. I’m going to make myself to read one all the way through. I think, as I read so much crime fiction, I’m used to the literary version of instant gratification, if that makes sense. So I’m going to try and read her again. Love your blog, great taste!


    • Kate says:

      Thanks! I think that because Ali Smith tends to ignore traditional plots her writing takes some getting used to. I don’t normally read crime but I’m reading a John Harvey novel at the moment and am really zipping through it. It’s good to read something out of your comfort zone sometimes, I think.


      • crimeworm says:

        Perseverance! As I said, I’ve probably got too used to crime fiction. The Accidental was perfectly accessible, but nothing seemed to happen – so after 100 pages I gave up! AL Kennedy is another (Scottish!) author I haven’t got to grips with – a friend said I’d enjoy her, so I got a short story collection, but didn’t enjoy it. Although possibly short stories weren’t the best place to start…I’ve got a John Harvey to read – think it’s called Darkness, Darkness. I did read him a long time ago, but not since. Nope, I’m not going to let Ali Smith beat me. Even if I read a book of hers, and dislike it, then it’s fair to judge it. I don’t feel it’s fair when I haven’t finished one!


      • Kate says:

        So sorry for the delay in replying, have spent some time away from the internet! Short stories are an acquired taste, I think. But I have wanted to read AL Kennedy for years and have never got around to her. Have you read Jackie Kay? She’s Scottish and one’s of my favourite writers. Her novel Trumpet is amazing. I think that’s a very fair system you have, not judging an author until you’ve finished one of their books. If I don’t enjoy something I don’t finish it and rarely bother with that writer again. Maybe I’m missing out on some great books.


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