“How To Be Both” by Ali Smith (2014) – book review

Ali Smith is a genius. She is undoubtedly a contender for ‘author of the year’. And this is quite possibly the write-up of the times (hers, not mine, goes without saying), although the jacket cover, while being very alluring, is altogether far too grown up to have anything to do with the subject matter.

Even more disturbingly, when I first opened this book I was totally lost and felt completely disenchanted. Penguin, Hamish Hamilton, Ms Smith, what were you thinking? I completely appreciate the clever ploy of producing a work that is comprised of two ‘Part Ones’ of equal length – that is to say, that there are two parts to the novel which make up the whole, which are entirely interlinked yet interchangeable, one commencing back in Italian 15th century and the other firmly entrenched in European modern day – yet surely you must have known that the only way to go was to have us hapless readers start in present day and work backwards, as it were?? Why arbitrarily do some versions of the book start with one or other section? I am vaguely tempted to sneak into bookshops and furtively open pages to see what the ratio is, or stand by cash tills ready to swoop down on purchasers of the book to check if they are being shortchanged by getting the more challenging version…

I swear that had I not had a peek at Amazon and Good Reads I would never have managed to get past page two : the very first lines read:

“Ho this is a mighty twisting thing fast as a

fish being pulled by its mouth on a hook

if a fish could be fished through a

6 foot thick wall made of bricks or an

arrow if an arrow could fly in a leisurely

curl like the coil of a snail or a

star with a tail if the tail was shot….”

Arghhhhhh, aiuto signori.

Had it not been for the Baileys’ challenge and so many awards and shortlists was well and truly ready to throw the gauntlet down and admit defeat, cussing and grumbling deeply into my Renaissance breeches, but then I chanced upon some reviews by readers wishing they’d known to start at Part Two of Part One, if you get the drift, and so I duly downed tools and fled all the way from page 4 to page 187 to begin again.

Where I was instantly caught hook, line and sinker. A mighty twisting thing fast as a fish being pulled by its mouth on a hook, in fact. I don’t think I breathed once between pages 189 and 372. Almost every page is now defaced by my fervently marking passages in pencil all the way through the journey George (aka Georgia) and her recently and prematurely deceased mother take together, including a trip from Cambridge to Ferrara to stand in awe in front of a giant fresco in the Palazzo Schifanoia (the appropriately named ‘palace of escaping from boredom’). So much more than this happens in these pages, moving both forwards and backwards on George’s timeline, too much to refer to here, but of a richness that is absolutely gobsmackingly, unbearably good.

There are layers upon layers, like the painting we will then re-explore from a very different perspective in the other “One”, and I swear it is ruining nothing to quote from the last page of ‘my’ Part One and the line “For now, in the present tense, George sits in the gallery and looks at one of the old paintings on the wall. It’s definitely something to do. For the foreseeable.” I wanted to jump on the Eurostar within the very hour and queue up all night if need be for opening times in order to mirror the 16-year old’s quest to revisit the National Gallery day after day to gaze at Saint Vincent Ferrer. Never mind jet-setting off to Washington to see the eyeless Lucy.

Moving forwards, or indeed backwards in my case to page one again, there’s a whole other set of magic tricks going on in Renaissance times. Have yet to read “Orlando”, but would imagine some of the same ideas are at work here : woman-turned-man-turned-woman then actually person-turned-tail-in-purgatory – plus (and I know this is going to sound far-fetched) we are going to jump through time barriers and meet up with George again, and rediscover some of the same leitmotifs of premature loss and frescoes, all bound up together. I know, it all sounds like double Dutch, doesn’t it. I think Ali Smith casts a spell over her readers and reels them in with her use of language. Even re-reading this I am shaking my head with disbelief.

The writing style is without a shadow of a doubt challenging and is often an assault on the senses, but it works, it really really works.

I am going to stop at that, for I fear I may be running the risk of putting you off if I ramble on about the syntax. Certainly some reviewers have given this book very short shrift, and have accused the author of wrapping the wool over our eyes, of being overly pretentious and of providing too much hard work. I loved one comment by a rather irate reader who said none of her book club, ‘which is filled with well read and accomplished women’, had enjoyed or even finished it – heart goes out to whoever suggested it and trust it was an evening meeting with plenty of liquid refreshment…

Thank goodness too for Christopher Benfey’s illuminatingly well-written review in the NY Times, probably even worth reading before embarking on the book (I wish I had).

But above all, what a cultural marvel. I did think back to “The Goldfinch” and the fascination Donna Tartt has with art, and there are as many tiers in these pages as there clearly are in the magnificent fresco I now also want to go visit in Ferrara. In fact, I want to down tools, pack up and go back to live in Italy, just to experience firsthand so much living history all over again.

(Open brackets, gosh, I wonder how on earth this book can be successfully translated into French and Italian?? A well nigh impossible task, I would have thought. Close brackets).

Anyway, to close, just have to mention Mrs Rock, the lady George has been assigned to talk with at school about dealing with the grievous loss of her mother. Am sure is hard to imagine, but apart from all this cleverness, Ali Smith is also very often very funny. “Mrs Rock, George had said the last time she had seen her, I am between you and a hard place. Mrs Rock almost smiled.” And later, “Mrs Rock brought her eyebrows down from the top of her head, where they’d gone”. I’d like to meet her for a glass or two of prosecco, to boot.

Sigh, for this book is now over. That makes me sad. I feel, like those britches, decidedly undone.

I haven’t finished reading all the Baileys’ shortlisted books yet, but find it hard to believe how this can be trumped. Before I got to “How To Be Both” I was busy getting ready to say that “Station Eleven” should have been hoiked off the longlist and reinstated in order to be proclaimed worthy champion, and have no doubts that more marvels will come from Emily St. John Mandel, but am going to stick my neck out now and suggest that the 2015 winner of the Baileys’ Prize for Women’s Fiction should go to this book. Will see on the 3rd June if I get egg all over my fresco, sorry, face.


Read in May 2015.

Rating : 10/10

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014, WINNER OF the Baileys’ Prize for Women’s Fiction 2015, Shortlisted for the Folio Prize 2015, Winner of the 2014 Goldsmith’s Prize, Winner of the 2014 Costa Novel Award, Winner of the Saltire Literary Book of the Year Award…

Images taken from here and here and here and here.
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21 Responses to “How To Be Both” by Ali Smith (2014) – book review

  1. Pingback: “Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction” Longlist 2015 | Literary ramblings etc

  2. Pingback: Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015 – shortlist | Literary ramblings etc

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  4. susan says:

    Like! I have stopped reading your review half way through, because I want to read this book and don’t want anything spoiled, but will go back to it after. I agree she is a genius, gorgeous word-smith.
    Just to keep you posted on things literary/arty Ali Smith is currently curating The Brighton Festival http://brightonfestival.org/guest_director/

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Did you spot the verbal diarrhea (ugh dislike that word but sometime just hits the spot) – could not stop rambling about the book, and had to rein in from carrying on. Hopefully no outright spoilers but am like you and am always loath to read other people’s views ahead for fearing of colouring things. Please let me know what you think of it when you do read it – also, what should I read of hers next? Have ‘only’ “The Accidental” in the house – clearly remember picking up and stupidly putting down “There But For The” in a second hand bookshop and suspect it might have been the writing style that put me off. Little did I know!


  6. Julie says:

    This sounds like one of those most complex and difficult reads that once you have mastered the writing technique and are comfortable and know where you are, the rewards are lavish. It’s going on my list. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Julie, lavish is the right lovely word for it.
    I am now thinking that I should bury the hatchet and re-try “Wolf Hall” etc, maybe revisit them both when number three due out, for surely I missed the boat there and maybe it was because I took against the writing technique? Was so nearly put off this before I got into to it. Nx


  8. susan says:

    I loved AS’s ‘Boy meets Girl’ a re telling of Ovid’s metamorphosis myth but that does not give you any idea of the book! It is very tiny and rich.
    Wolf Hall is a magnificent read! Yes the prose is all in the present tense and third person but once you get into the sway and again gorgeousness of her writing it rewards fully.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I enjoyed this one although I preferred George’s half of the story to the other – a fascinating experiment!

    Liked by 1 person

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  13. Denise says:

    OMG I have just recommended this for my book group. Help! I loved the book, but I can see that it would be problematic to get the 15th century half first. In so many ways, it’s so perfectly balanced and one of them is the simplicity of George’s story and language against the complexity of Francesco’s. I also loved the way Francesco’s gender adventures are presented as such a positive, rounded thing. I just hate when trans and LGBT themes are used by authors as an excuse to have danger and unpleasantness thrown at a character, with no thought as to what life as a whole might have been like for these groups.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Maybe hint to your book group that they might check which “Part One” they have at the front of their book before they start? Will be intrigued to hear what they make of it and read your comments post meeting! Nx


  15. susan says:

    Nicola I have just finished How To Be Both. It took so long as I stopped between the stories and read other things which was a good thing and a bad thing! I am glad I had the Artist story first and I suspect that whichever way around it is read, the first half is the preferred part. I also feel that they are separate stories and I would be happy to have them so, though I am not complaining of the dual nature of the narrative. I so enjoyed the Italian fresco painter’s imagined story that the more conventional modern girl’s life and grief story was hard to appreciate. However I LOVE this book! The word play(fullness) especially and her heartfelt attempt (successful) at writing around the death of one’s mother at too early an age experienced by too young an aged daughter is remarkable in both eras of the book. (wearing her mother’s dress and dragging it through the dirt, singing and dancing alone to the tunes that her mother had remarked upon). Ali Smith gets what it is to be an Artist, she talks of the essence of something captured by the painter and she does the same with the human condition through her wonderful writing.
    A pilgrimage to those frescoes might just have to go on a bucket list!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Hi, am so glad to read your comments – am ever more convinced that your literary prowess far exceeds mine!! She really has done something special with this book – and it resonates slightly differently with each of us, which I think is another feather in her cap, I think. I also agree re the pilgrimage: went to Ravenna etc a good 15 years ago and still remember some of the frescoes and mosaics so clearly, but definitely didn’t see the ones she refers to – so would be marvellous to return. Was in London just briefly last month, and Daisy and I duly went into the National Gallery on a mission. Some of the rooms were closed due to industrial action, but after a fair bit of trekking around we finally hunted down the Francesco del Cossa painting and stood before it à la George. A magical moment indeed!!!
    On another note, what did you decide to read next at the book group meet?


  17. susan says:

    Like! How wonderful to see the painting and all because of a novel! The best possible of happy accidents. You are kind re my comments, however you are wrong! I could never write such a wonderful and engaging project as ‘Literary Ramblings’ I enjoy it tremendously and get quite cross when I have not had the proper time to spend with one of the articles.
    We are still waiting on the next book for Bookclub but everyone else really enjoyed and appreciated All the Light. I was the only one ‘churlish’ (love that comment!) enough to question the validity of the prize and the depth of the characters, although I did enjoy the story. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I did think you might think that – in fact just thought of you as have feverishly read another interloper cover to cover: “We Are Not Ourselves”. Could not resist and am now going back to the order of play, but this caught me unawares and once I’d read the first chapter I had to continue. So will attempt to get thoughts on paper this month on that one, and if and when you do read it I will be most keen to have your thoughts on it – have you come across it en route? It’s also set around NY, which was funny as had just been rootling around listing every book that came to the fore for being set in the Big Apple and hadn’t spotted this one. Ha. Have a good day xxx


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