‘How To Be Both’ by Ali Smith

‘How To Be Both’ by Ali Smith  (2014) – 372 pages   Grade: A

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‘How To Be Both’ is a novel that is divided into two equal parts.  One part follows the Italian Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa.  The other part is about a 16 year old girl living in modern England named George who hates the song ‘Georgy Girl’ for which she was named (How many English girls got stuck with that name?).  Somehow Ali Smith has fit their two stories into this one playful novel.

George’s 52 year old mother has died recently.

“This will be the first year her mother hasn’t been alive since the year her mother was born.  That is so obvious that it is stupid even to think it and yet so terrible that you can not think of it.”  

George’s mother is (was?) what I would call an art subversive.   She subverted the political world with art and the artistic world with politics.  But now she is gone, and George and her little brother Henry are hurting.  Their father is drinking too much, and the children are mainly left to themselves.

Before she died George’s mother took them on a trip to Ferarra, Italy to see the frescoes of Francesco del Cossa in the Palazzo Schifanoia.  On the walls of the palace are painted allegories for each month of the year.  Cossa painted the Allegories for March, April, and May which are considered the finest in the palace as lesser painters did the other months.

As you can see from the picture of the Allegory of April below, Cossa’s frescos are teeming with life which is something that also could be said of ‘How To Be Both’.

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So the ‘George’ part of the novel is about this teenage girl trying to cope with her mother’s death, but it would be a mistake to say that it is sad.  We flash back to conversations when George’s mother was still alive which are warm and funny and filled with clever word play.

So how does Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa become a character in this modern novel?  His picture of the Saint Vincent Ferrer is in the National Gallery in London.  Remembering her trip to Ferrara, George goes to see this picture.  Cossa, still in Purgatorium, is hovering over the picture and sees this sad boy.   At first he doesn’t realize that George is a girl.  But Francesco is actually a girl herself.  Her father disguised her as a boy in order for her to pursue a painting career.  There is no mention of this in any of the history books; this is most certainly another riotous whim of Ali Smith.

Francesco del Cossa tells his (her?) life story which in Ali Smith’s hands is wicked and bawdy and filled with sexual confusions.

In this funny novel Ali Smith has pretty much undermined our preconceived ideas of what a novel is supposed to be just as she is constantly undermining our notions of sexual identity. I found reading ‘How To Be Both’ to be a joyous anarchic experience.  This is a novel for anyone who is getting kind of tired of the straightforward and traditional.

 

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18 responses to this post.

  1. I’m often tired of linear storytelling, so I know I would like her books. This does sound a tad more accessible than some others though.

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    • Hi Caroline,
      Yes, even though ‘How to Be Both’ is highly experimental and subversive, it is also warm and funny so it is very accessible. I don’t believe I’ve read Ali Smith before – she’s my first discovery of the new year.

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      • There’s this Canongate Myth series that you may know. Famous writers like A.S.Byatt, Sally Vickers, Margaret Atwood, Ali Smith have each retold an ancient myth. Ali Smith’s novel Boy Meets Girl is said to be very good. I’m currently reading Sally Vicker’s take on the Oedipus myth.

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        • I’ve heard of that series and have been tempted but still haven’t read any of them. I’m a fan of the old myths so they would be right up my alley. I did not know Salley Vickers had one, she is one of my favorites.

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  2. Oddly while I’ve read a fair few reviews of this, that’s the first one to really make me want to read it. What order did you read the two stories in?

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  3. Hi Max,
    Yes, they published ‘How to be Both’ with half the copies having the Francesco del Cossa story first and half the copies having the George story first. My copy had the George story first which was probably a good thing since the modern story is probably more accessible than the Renaissance story which was more like a bawdy Samuel Richardson story (like Pamela or Clarissa) than anything else.

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  4. Well done, Tony, this book has just won the Costa Book Award, see http://www.waterstones.com/blog/2015/01/costa-book-awards-2014-winners-announced/?utm_source=costacatwinners&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=050115

    I had put it on my wishlist already:)

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    • Hi Lisa,
      ‘How to Be Both’ is certainly a deserving winner of the Costa award. Just goes to show that your Richard Flanagan isn’t the only deserving winner this year. 🙂

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  5. I really loved this book too! I thought the bit in George’s part with George and H trying to do a class assignment using del Cossa and then commenting about having to make stuff up about him and what he would think of that was hilarious. I definitely agree the book is a joyous experience!

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    • Hi Stefanie,
      I’m happy to see that ‘How to be Both’ won the Costa, since it didn’t win the Booker. It makes me interested in Ali Smith’s back catalog. Juxtaposing the George story and the del Cossa story was brilliant. Francesco del Cossa has now become one of my favorite Renaissance painters.

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  6. Great review! I look forward to reading this soon. She’s one of those writers always in line for a Booker, so I’m glad she won the Costa.

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  7. […] other bloggers have reviewed this book including bookemstevo, Gemma at The Perfectionist Pen and anakatony at Tony’s Book […]

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  8. My copy arrived today:)

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