Review: ‘How To Be Both’

This is the first novel by Ali Smith that I have read, and before going in I was aware of her reputation as a writer whose work is a bit ‘modern’ and a bit ‘difficult’ to read. This is no bad thing and, having loved studying Modernism in my student days, I was intrigued. This book is also her third to be shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, which only recommends it more.

Of course, How To Be Both is all about contrasts and juxtapositions, and the many dualities that run through life – both remarkable and unremarkable. The book is divided into two sections, both entitled ‘One’. You can buy editions of the book with the sections either way round, something that I was not aware of until I had chosen my particular copy at random from the shelf at Blackwell’s. The two sections are set 600 years apart – in Renaissance Italy, and in modern day London – my copy has the Renaissance story first. The Renaissance section is narrated by the artist Francesco del Cossa and begins as a sort of freestyle poetry, an abstract stream of consciousness that slowly connects itself into sentences and paragraphs as Francesco remembers and tells us – well, not necessarily stories, but bits of stories, snippets from his mind.

The modern section works in much the same way, with one coherent story running through the middle but with other, smaller stories recounted along the way. The present day narrator, George, is mourning the loss of her mother and trying to negotiate teenage life. Initially the style is the only thing that seems to connect the two sections, before the themes raised by the novel’s title start to appear. After her mother’s death George goes to see the school counsellor, Mrs Rock:

How are you feeling? Mrs Rock said.
I’m okay, George said. I think it’s because I don’t think I am.
You’re okay because you don’t think you’re okay? Mrs Rock said.
Feeling, George said. I think I’m okay because I don’t think I’m feeling.
You don’t think you’re feeling? Mrs Rock said.
Well, if I am, it’s like it’s at a distance, George said.
If you’re feeling, it’s at a distance? Mrs Rock said.
Like always having the sound of someone drilling a hole in a wall, not your wall, but a wall like very close to you, George said. Like, say you wake up one morning to the noise of someone along the road having work done on his or her house and you don’t just hear the drilling happening, you feel it in your own house, though it’s actually happening several houses away. […] It’s at a distance and it’s like the drilling thing.

For George personally there is also the uncomfortable duality of life continuing and her mother not being part of it. Similarly Francesco also has to live without his mother, and I’m sure this duality is felt, although it isn’t expressed as clearly as it is in George’s section. I say ‘his’ – but in fact the Francesco in How To Be Both is actually a girl masquerading as a boy, a trick recommended by her father in order to get work as an artist. This gives rise to the obvious duality in her life; deceit and secret-keeping, pretending to be something else.

Cause nobody knows us : except our mothers, and they hardly do (and also tend disappointingly to die before they ought). […] 
Cause nobody’s the slightest idea who we are, or who we were, not even we ourselves. 
– except, that is, in the glimmer of a moment of fair business between strangers, or the nod of knowing and agreement between friends.

Here there are suggestions, snippets, of a deeper debate about the nature of the self, and of knowing one’s self and what that is. Francesco is a girl but seems to live quite happily as a boy, as an artist. She is at once a girl and an artist, at a time when this was still quite a new profession for a woman. At least, Francesco seems to encounter only male artists. But perhaps the point is that they all could be both, they could all be like Francesco – not necessarily physically, but in some psychological sense. It often said that all people contain elements of both genders, that men can be feminine and women can be masculine. Sexuality doesn’t seem to come into it here, so I think it is more to do with perception from different points of view. This, for me, is where Francesco and George’s stories connect – there is an outer and an inner self, two versions of the same person, living the same life, but not having quite the same experience.

The intelligence of How To Be Both impressed me, as did Smith’s ingenuity and bravery with her writing style. However, I found 83.Ali Smith-How to be both jacketthe style a little too affected. It created a distance between the characters and me, so it took me a while to connect with them and their stories. At times it was more like reading prose poetry than a novel. There is also the question of the two different sections – they are connected by their overarching themes, and the loss of a mother, but they have very different subject matter. The jump from one section to the other feels a little strange at first, but once I’d finished the book I thought they worked well together in the same way that short stories work well together when they share a theme; in this respect How To Be Both feels a bit like a miniature book of short stories.

I can see why Ali Smith is so widely praised, and why she has been shortlisted for the Man Booker. She is brave and creative, dynamic and modern, and yet her stories, like the ones in How To Be Both, seem to transcend time. How To Be Both is not an easy read, and at times I wasn’t sure I got it, but I kept reading and was glad of it. For me at least it was a book that worked for me the more and more I thought about it and actually worked to understand it. If you’re willing to put in the work, How To Be Both is definitely worth it.

L. Thomasson

How To Be Both is available from most bookstores, ISBN 9780241145210, RRP £16.99. More of Lizzi’s reviews are available on her website.

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