How to be Both by Ali Smith became an instant success after its publication 2014. Back then all I could see on my Twitter feeds was praise for an author that I had never Heard about. So, after seeing that her latest book Autumn has also been welcomed with equal enthusiast for people I trust, I decided to finally read How to be Both. I borrowed this book from the Bristol Central Library.
“Cause nobody’s the slightest idea who we are, or who we were”.
How to be Both is a novel about fluidity and ambiguity. As the title suggests, a constant theme in both parts of the book is the characters’ ability to evade categories set by society and construct their identity all by themselves. Liminality, those spaces that are both and none at the same time, becomes key for George, an English teenager that has recently lost her mother, and Francescho, a Renaissance artist struggling to become a well-known painter.
The novel is all play, a game between Smith and the reader that will fascinate and surprise in equal measure. The book is divided in two halves, each of them dedicated to a different character. As a metaphysical experiment, there are two version of the book: One that present’s George story first, and another one that presents Francescho’s story first. No matter which, a quick look at Goodreads shows that readers prefer the first half no matter the edition they had. Not happy with this game, Smith also plays the reader for some pages until we discover that George is actually a young girl who is facing the rest of her life with her mother while trying to figure out who she is. As she explores sexual identity, female desire, and growing up, George presents us with a portrait of her mother as an inspiring woman obsessed with creativity and art. So much so, that she visits the same painting so often, George feels the need to visit too after her death.
That painting is no other than Francescho’s. But again, things are not what they seem, and Francescho is a young woman in disguise trying to become a painter in Renaissance Italy. Hidden under big clothes and a lot of banding is the body of a woman that defies social conventions and belongs to another time. As her male friends take her to brothels and her secret is discovered by the city’s prostitutes, she also discovers her sexuality letting her desire roam free in exchange for a drawing. It is in Francecho’s experience that Smith finally gets to fully develop the theme of ambiguity presenting the reader with very interesting questions about identity, how society plays an enormous role in how we define ourselves and the freedom that comes from liminality, ambiguity and letting yourself remain unlabeled while trying to experience life to the fullest.
“It was all : it was nothing : it was more than enough”
How to be Both is my first Ali Smith but it will not be the last. Reading such a complex work could be considered a difficult and daunting task, but Smith’s prose is so beautiful and perfectly constructed that reading just flows. I read this book while I was writing and editing, and I found myself constantly thinking about the story, and pulled to the book every night, no matter the hour.