Ali Smith’s How to Be Both is not an easy read, but it is a clever and engaging one. Split into two separate sections, one set in the Renaissance and one set in the modern era, the stream-of-consciousness style of writing can make it a challenge to grasp the two separate stories and their connection. George (full name Georgia) is a teenage girl who has suddenly lost her beloved artist mother. The last trip they took together was to Italy, where they viewed art by Francesco del Cossa, a real-life renaissance artist. The second half of the book is the story of del Cossa, and while it is beautifully written I would have preferred to have read George’s story throughout.
Smith is my favourite fiction author, and I’ve read every novel and short story she’s written. Her novel Hotel World is similarly experimental, though it isn’t as difficult to focus on. In all of Smith’s writing, she plays with the concepts of storytelling and art, and this book is no exception. Fragmented and poetic, it is an exploration of love, language, family, gender and genre. Smith’s turns-of-phrase are beautiful as ever, and the writing contains a wit that cuts open and exposes the depth of life’s grief. Books about loss can be overwhelming if not tempered with gentleness about those left behind, and George is simultaneously self-aware and completely, vulnerably lost. del Cossa’s section exposes the truth of the artist’s life- born a woman but raised as a man by a father who wanted to encourage his talented daughter’s success. It is a story about the pursuit of art- del Cossa’s friends and lovers come and go as fragmented blips in time.
This novel, nominated for the 2014 Booker Prize, was released in two versions. In one, George’s section (“Camera”) comes first and del Cossa’s (“Eyes”) comes after. That is the version I read, and I tore through the first half much more quickly than I did the second. The alternate editions of the book are reversed, with “Eyes” at the beginning. I do recommend this book, but I think that I might have preferred to read the alternate version instead- if I’d known more about del Cossa it might have made George’s experience of the art a bit more meaningful.