Book review: How to be Both

Ali SmithI admire Ali Smith, own quite a few of her books, so it was without hesitation that I stared to read How to be Both, knowing it was an ‘experimental’ novel, a twisting, spiralling tale which has been shortlisted, longlisted, and won awards up the ying-yang.

But, I wasn’t prepared for the first 20-30 pages [it’s difficult to be accurate on a Kindle] which completely lost me. Complete non-sequiturs, verse, stream of consciousness. Rambling, with little context. If it had been an unknown author I would have run out of patience, but it’s Ali Smith so I stuck with it and fell into the story of Francescho. The writing is beautiful, atmospheric, still a little short on fact for me: a child [boy or girl?] with artistic talent, whose father is a skilled brickmaker. The story of the child Francescho twists and twirls with that of the adult Francescho, a Renaissance painter of frescoes, who in his own quiet way challenges the status quo.

If you love books about artists, you will enjoy this one. In a brothel, Franchescho paints the women rather than laying with them, and becomes known for this. As he paints, he remembers the words of ‘the great Alberti’. “The great Alberti says that when we paint the dead, the dead man should be dead in every part of him all the way to the toe and finger nails, which are both living and dead at once : he says that when we paint the alive the alive must be alive to the very smallest part, each hair on the head or the arm of an alive person being itself alive : painting, Alberti says, is a kind of opposite to death…”

Just at the point when you wonder where Francescho’s story is going, Part Two starts. And what a contrast. 21st century. George is a modern-day teenager, grieving for her mother, remembers a visit they made to Italy because her mother was drawn to see a fresco by an unknown artist. There, they discover elements of the fresco which we saw Franchescho paint, their modern-deay interpretation, and Franchescho’s reason for painting them.

Through George’s eyes, and through her conversations with Mrs Rock, the school counsellor, we see the binary nature of the world: boy/girl, truth/lies. Is this the ‘both’ of the title? Mrs Rock says a truth teller is “usually someone with no power, no social status to speak of, who’d take it upon themselves to stand up to the highest authority when the authority was unjust or wrong, and would express out loud the most uncomfortable truths, even though by doing this they would probably even be risking their life.”

This is a book to read and read again. Complex, challenging and beautiful, this is not an easy read, it demands concentration, but it is worth it.

If you like How to be Both, try:-
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
‘Girl in Hyacinth Blue’ by Susan Vreeland

‘How to be Both’ by Ali Smith [UK: Penguin] Buy now

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
HOW TO BE BOTH by Ali Smith #bookreview via @SandraDanby

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