How to be both – Ali Smith

When the lovely folk at the Bailey’s Prize asked me if there was a book I would like to champion from the shortlist that I hadn’t read yet (or you know it would be The Bees) I instantly, and quite cheekily, asked them if I could read Ali Smith because I am a big fan of her work. I have actually been a big fan of her work since before this blog was born when I read The Accidental and loved it just as much as I was occasionally baffled by it. Since then I have loved Girl Meets Boy, The First Person & Other Stories, There but for the and Artful. Now with How to be both I think Ali Smith has encased everything I love about her writing in one book, though I am also aware that it won’t be a book for every reader out there…

Penguin Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the lovely lot at the Bailey’s Prize

How to be both is a clever novel in that is is made up of two narratives/novellas/stories which form a whole novel, yet can be read and have indeed been printed in either order creating a slightly different book. Before we get too involved in how that works, let me tell you more about the two stories. First up, well in my editon, is the tale of George whose mother has recently died and whose life and death along with the things she was interested in have become a kind of obsession with George whilst coping with the grief and loss of her mother, one being the art of an Italian 15th century fresco painter, Francesco del Cossa. The other story is the tale of the artist del Cossa who of little is known and indeed until a specific fresco and letter were discovered wasn’t a known artist at all. It may seem like the link between the stories is obvious however the more you read the more the narratives are connected, occasionally mirrored and interweaved.

But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?
The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done.
But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?
George sighs heavily. Her mother points across the way, to the castle wall. A bus goes past. Its whole back is an advert for something in which there’s a Madonna and child picture as if from the past, except the mother is showing the baby Jesus how to look something up on an iPad.

Now I left in the last paragraph of that quote because if you are worried that this novel might be too clever or maybe a little to conceptual it is honestly not. Yes Smith is an amazingly gifted and clever writer, yes she is also an author who is brimming with ideas and her novels can have an unusual concept to them, in no way is she a writer who alienates, comes across as pompous or likes the sound of her own voice or opinions. Her writing is as enjoyable as it is experimental and she has as much sense of humour as she has ideas, admittedly the first part of the Italian section made me do a ‘what?!?’ but I trusted her and read on more of that shortly. What I love about her writing the most is the way that she will play with words, flip them and their meanings about and show you just how blooming amazing this language we all have is.

There is also much more to love about her writing. Layers mainly, in fact layered is a very good word for Smith as she does this with themes in her novels, gender, beginnings, art, culture, stories, spirit & essence, death, grief and more are in this novel. Smith is clearly a people watcher. She has the ears for dialogue and the eyes for character. Any conversation you read in a Smith novel be they set now or be it set several centuries ago is exactly how people speak. I know this sounds really obvious because all authors write dialogue, yet even when that dialogue is good it isn’t as brimming and astute and layered with meaning as when Ali Smith does it, in particular (and this almost beats one of the best dinner party conversations in fiction ever in There but for the) there are conversations between teenage George and her mother that we know we have all had when we were being pedantic clever clogs and one scene with George and her father having to discuss a pornographic  video with its undertone of two people who have become alien to one another since grief hit, is utterly brilliant.

The same brilliance with dialogue applies to Smith’s characters. George is a wonderful, wonderful character who I loved seeing the world from the angle of. Like in There but for the (sorry to mention it again, it remains my favourite Smith book and I loved this) in How to be both Smith uses a younger character to show us the reader how utterly bizarre we are as adult human beings. She does this with the way her mother uses language, yes her own mother, and she does this when she is thinking about death, about art, about pornography, all without it ever sounding precocious. I was utterly charmed by George and it may have been leaving George behind, and initially the very unusual way the start of the second section (in my version of the book) that made me a little hesitant and a little cranky initially when we went to 15th Century Italy.

Don’t get me wrong, once I had warmed up to and got used to the way del Cossa tells a tale I was into the swing of it. There were three particular highlights in this section firstly the wonderful and rompy tale of del Cossa’s rise to painting for the aristocracy, which takes us via a wonderful and vivid whore house, secondly her tale of friendship  and finally, yet most incredibly of all, the way Smith writes about painting. You’d think creative types writing about other creative types would be easy, quite the opposite and some novels about artists or musicians can go horribly wrong (oh hello Richard Powers’ Orfeo) or come across as pretentious drivel. Not for Smith. I was worried I might get bored when she wrote about del Cossa painting or feel like it was a lecture, I was captivated.

It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even a imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and it told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are, their softness and wetness held in a pellicle of colour thinner and more feeling than an eyelid, as if a duck told you about the combined wet and underdry of its feathers, a brick about the rough kiss of its skin.

I also think the Italian section is very integral to another thing Ali Smith likes to toy with and that is our assumptions. If there is one thing I have learnt in the case of an Ali Smith novel it is to have no preconceived ideas about it, other than it will be very good, and also to assume nothing. For those of you who have yet to read it I will say no more for fear of spoilers, for those of you who have read it you will know what I mean and we can talk about those and much more in the comments below – after all I promised this would be like a book group, this does mean there may be some spoilers in the comments, be warned. I did wonder how it would work if I had read the two parts the other way around and tried playing the ‘if I had read it that way’ game, I am wondering if too much would have been given away too soon. More to discuss below I feel?

I really liked How to be both. I think it takes all the best parts of her previous novel, mixes them up  and produces something wonderful. Occasionally this does mean that How to be both will have a familiar feel to its predecessors in some way (I so wanted to call this post Artful: The Remix) yet it is also a completely original novel and concept too. As I said before, Smith is as enjoyable as she is experimental and long may she keep writing books like this and gaining a much deserved wider and wider readership. I think she could be one of the most interesting contemporary writers of our time whilst also being one of our most accessible, if you are prepared to put the work in and leave your reading inhibitions by the door. Marvellous!

So normally it is over to you and I ask if you have read the book and what you thought of it, plus ask you what else I should read of Ali Smith’s and indeed from the Bailey’s shortlist. I still want all that but I want a little bit more (and I feel I am worth it, ha) as I said this would be like a book group discussion so to get us all going I do want you to tell me what you thought, I have also asked a few questions in the first comment below… let’s get discussing!


Filed under Ali Smith, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Penguin Books, Review

9 responses to “How to be both – Ali Smith

  1. So in the spirit of a real book group, here’s some discussion points to start off with. Do feel free to answer and add some more…

    1. Did you enjoy it?
    2. Which way did you read the book and how do you think that affected the way you experienced it? Does it matter which way you read it, or in one way is too much given away or is it harder to start off with? Is one narrative more compelling than the other?
    3. What did you think of the construct of how George’s story related to del Cossa and vice versa?
    4. Smith plays with assumptions over gender and sexuality, in one case double bluffing us what did you make of it and why do you think she does this?
    5. If you have read Smith’s work before could you see ripples of it in How to be both? Like gender in Girl Meets Boy, the young outlook and power of dialogue in There but for the, and the art and ghosts of Artful?

    Over to you…

  2. Nice review! In answer to your questions:

    1. Yes, I enjoyed it very much 🙂 Smith pulls off the duality concept very skilfully.
    2. I read Francesco first, then George. I preferred George’s narrative although it’s hard to tell if this is partly because of the order I read the two halves in. I’m not sure it’s possible to come up with a conclusive answer to this because I can’t “unread” the book and experience it the other way round… George is a fantastic character though and I think Smith pitched her “teenage” voice just right – not too angsty or too adult/childish which I found really refreshing. Definitely agree with your point about Smith’s skill for interesting dialogue too.
    3. Possibly one of the reasons I preferred George’s half is because I read it after del Cossa and it was easier to spot the parallels which made her story more interesting. Also trying to spot the potential layers/mirroring in the first half was very interesting before I read about George. I felt the duality aspect was maintained consistently throughout.
    4. I guess I’m stating the obvious here but I think it’s because the theme of sexuality is just a great fit with the whole concept of duality – it’s the ambiguity in both the themes and structure which is particularly fascinating.
    5. I read The Accidental about eight years ago. To be honest, I can’t remember that many specifics about the plot but I remember it did make an impression on me and How to be both certainly has too.

  3. I picked this up at the library yesterday and was leafing through it longingly (but am trying to stick to my own shelves for the time being). I have one very practical questino: is there a way of knowing which edition starts with which story? So if I wanted to read them in a particular order, say, I could do so?

  4. alison

    Good review – very thought provoking. In my edition the George version is first. Like the above comment from A Little Blog of Books, it is hard to know how it would be to read it the other way round from the way you first experienced it but for me, personally, this was the ‘right’ way because I worry that if I had started with Francesco I might have been put off by its ‘difficulty’. It did take me a while to get used to the second half whereas I felt I knew where I was more in the first as the dialogue etc was more accessible.

    I have previously read There But For The, The Accidental, Girl Meets Boy and, perhaps my favourite, Hotel World. I too love the way she plays with words and I agree totally with what you say about how she shows off our language at its very best. I have seen her speak at a few things and each time she dazzled; she just has a brain like quicksilver, darting about, making all sorts of connections and asides that were so insightful but with a really great sense of humour. But I also know of people (in my book club mostly!) who are put off, think she’s being too clever for clever’s sake and too conceptual.

  5. dirtmother

    Yes, I enjoyed this… and I was a bit wary because although I am pretty sure I have read The Accidental I cannot remember anything about it at all and Hotel World felt airless, claustrophobic and unappealing.

    I had the Italian first and initially thought “Oh no, here we go” but was quickly engaged, especially by Fs family. I often find fiction authors’ subject knowledge or research a bit wearisome but this was done quite deftly. I liked the way the title was borne out in the story in many different ways… although I did ultimately feel a bit “Where is this going?”

    The now motherless George and her family (before and after her mother’s death) I found utterly delightful. Similarly the surprise importance of the book cover.

    I *enjoyed* the modern half most but I think I’ll remember the chief protagonists in both. Fundamentally I found the book a richly woven and satisfying tapestry but far more accessible than I expected.

  6. I’m really looking forward to reading this after winning it in your competition!

  7. Pingback: And the winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015 is… | Savidge Reads

  8. I’m really looking forward to this one after winning it! I haven’t got around to it yet but I think I’ll be taking it on holiday with me next week and giving it a go then.

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