21st Century,  General Fiction

How to be Both by Ali Smith

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.



  • bookbii

    Lovely review. It is, as you say, a book which really gets into your mind, which you can’t stop thinking about afterwards. Ali Smith is a great writer, very playful and joyful and exuberant in her love of words.

  • JacquiWine

    I’m really glad you enjoyed this book so much. It’s full of ideas and interesting themes, all explored with the lightest of touches. She is such an engaging, playful writer, even when tackling big themes.

    • Elena

      When I first read that George’s mother had died I thought I was in for a soppy novel, but I just loved how she made grief what it is: Something we all go through, a part of everyday life.

  • heidijames

    Great review as always. Try There But For The… my favourite Smith novel. I wasn’t as keen on How to be Both, but after your review might reread it, see if my feelings have changed (they often do!)

    • Elena

      Thank you, Heidi. I hadn’t heard of There But For The… but I’m checking if my public library has it right now! I hope that your re-read goes well. I can’t imagine how wondergul TBFT must be if you didn’t care much about HTBB!

  • Inés

    I had never heard of her, but I’ve checked and “How to Be Both” is available in my local bookshop :). Also, the collection “Free Love and Other Stories” has been translated into Spanish with the title “Amor libre”. I’m saying this in case somebody wishes to read it in this language :).

  • Laila@BigReadingLife

    How interesting! To me the second part sounds the most fascinating but you say that people on Goodreads prefer the first half! I’ve never read Ali Smith but maybe now I have to reconsider!

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