Now that the shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has been released, I am taking a break from reading and reviewing translated fiction for a while. ‘How to be both’ by Ali Smith has been shortlisted for just about every major literary award in recent months including the Man Booker Prize, the Folio Prize, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Costa Book Awards as well as winning the Goldsmiths Prize and the more I have heard about it in recent months, the more I have wanted to read it. One half is set in fifteenth century Italy and tells the story of al fresco Renaissance artist Franceshco del Cossa. The other half is set in modern Britain and tells the story of a sixteen-year-old girl called George whose mother has recently died.
‘How to be both’ is a book of two halves in a very literal sense. Some copies begin with the story set in Italy while others begin with the story set in Britain – it is entirely random depending on which copy you happen to pick up. The structure of the book imitates the style of an al fresco painting with one story overlapping another – it’s a daring concept and it is one that Smith pulls off very skilfully and allows her to explore the main theme of duality in several different ways, particularly in relation to gender ambiguity and the meaning of art.
The copy of ‘How to be Both’ I read began with the story set in Italy but I enjoyed the story set in modern Britain more than the first half. The character of George and her relationship with her mother is particularly well written. However, it’s difficult to tell if this is just because it was a stronger and more engaging story or because it also happened to be the second part I read which allowed me to spot the parallels with the first half. Much has already been written about Smith’s style of writing which is often described as experimental, playful and inventive. It is certainly all of these things but the prose in ‘How to be both’ is also more accessible on the page than I had thought it would be.
Much like ‘The Luminaries‘ by Eleanor Catton, ‘How to be both’ is a novel which is almost entirely dominated by its structure. The differences between the two halves and my preference for George’s story make the book as a whole feel rather disjointed. However, I felt I could appreciate what Smith was trying to achieve here more than I could with Catton’s complex astrological patterns whose nuances mostly meant very little to me. If I ever read ‘How to be both’ again, I would certainly read the stories the other way round and begin with George’s story next time. Like any piece of art, this is a book which needs to be revisited at a different angle in order to uncover new meanings. On the other hand, it’s impossible for me to completely unread ‘How to be both’ to fully experience and appreciate how the stories compare in a different order.
Have you read ‘How to be both’? Which story did you read first and did you prefer one over the other?