How To Be Both is a novel all about art's versatility. Borrowing from painting's fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it's a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There's a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There's the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real - and all life's givens get given a second chance.
There are two editions of How To Be Both: one with George’s part first, and the other with Francesco del Cosso’s part first. I was fortunate enough to have George’s part first, and thank god I did. I’m not 100% sure I would have even continued reading this book from start to finish if I had started with del Cosso’s narrative. In George’s narrative we learn about her life in Cambridge with her father and younger brother after the devastating death of her mother. George’s father chooses to deal with the pain by drinking away his sorrows and so George is left to deal with her sense of loss and grief, and that of her brother’s, by herself and predictably she finds herself lonely and confused.
The other half of the book follows del Cosso, a painter in the 1460s who is desperately trying to get his work recognised – but del Cosso has a secret, and not all is as it seems.The two stories might seem completely unrelated, but Ali Smith knits the two together with some very clever crafting. We move backwards and forwards through time in this novel as a whole and in the individual’s narrative so we see del Cosso’s paintings in a museum in George’s world, but George is also becomes a part of del Cosso’s world in the 15th century.
This book is all about how everything is both one thing and another and this movement through time demonstrates how time means both nothing and everything. For example, George’s mother is both constantly present, and yet never present and this is something that poor George has to learn to cope with.I really enjoyed George’s part of the story – she’s a character that you grow to love and you feel a deep sense of sympathy for her. She’s feisty and strong-willed, even in her grief, and she’s a great female lead. del Cosso’s part was far less interesting in my opinion and I often found myself incredibly bored. The writing doesn’t have much structure and I found myself swimming in a load of words that had no meaning to me. This was incredibly disappointing and really ruined the story for me. His narrative wasn’t all bad, of course there were also some very intriguing passages and many interesting questions were raised but the frequent lapses into (what I thought were) incomprehensible passages makes it quite hard work getting through his half of the story.
Whilst the point of releasing these two editions was to reinforce the fact that this book can be read it either order and that both ways are fine, I would have to disagree with this strongly. George’s part of the story really sets the story up and explains how the two different stories fit together. Yes, the two stories are linked in such a way that both of them regularly make references to the other half of the story; however, to begin reading del Cosso’s part would put the reader at a huge disadvantage and leave a lot more questions unanswered. Any mention of George and her life would have very little meaning in del Cosso’s part if you did not already know a bit about her situation. No matter which way round your edition of this book is, I think it would be a good idea to read the first half, then the second half, then the first half again, to truly understand all the links between the two novels and pick up anything that you may have missed the first time.
This is an unconventional story that requires a lot of effort on the part of the reader in order for them to really enjoy it. Through the movement in time, many interesting questions are raised about identity, gender, sexuality, friendship, morality – lots of hard hitting topics that can really be quite mind boggling if you’re not paying attention. I can imagine this being studied in schools or literary book groups, but I think for the average reader, this might be a bit too stylistic. If you’re not willing to commit to this book, you’re not going to get the full experience and you probably won’t enjoy it. There are many, many complex layers to this story and it’s quite easy to just skip over all of these which will result in the reader being incredibly confused. When I finished this book, I don’t think I really understood it at all, but then I went to a book group meeting about it and my eyes were opened. Without the interpretations of these other bookish people, I no doubt would’ve put this down as a dead-loss, one that just wasn’t for me. However, now that I have a greater understanding of it, I can appreciate Ali Smith’s style and content so much more.
Everyone who I’ve spoken to who has read How To Be Both said that they have a love/hate relationship with it. I guess that’s funny since the title, and the contents, is all about to be two contrasting things at once. I was actually doing work experience at Penguin Random House at the time that this book was being prepared for release and it was being set up as the big release of the year. Since it went on to win a heck of a lot of awards, I guess their predictions were correct. However, prizes do not always equal reader enjoyment and I have to admit that at some points during the novel I was incredibly bored, and at others I was really engrossed. This book is what you make of it – if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to properly explore all the different themes and layers that Ali Smith has created, then you will no doubt enjoy it. If not, well, good luck my friend.