Published by Penguin Books Ltd on April 16th 2015
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 recognized – 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.
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.