How to Be Both
By: Ali Smith
Format/Source: Trade paperback; my copy
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.
I’ve been hearing much about this book time and again in the last year or so after it was shortlisted for a number of literary prizes. It was only after it won the Baileys Women’s Prize in Fiction for 2015 that I decided to pick it up and see what everyone’s raving about.
My copy of the book contained both parts of the story, starting with Franchesco in the 1460s and the second half focusing on George in our present time. The story flows in and out, between the memories of the characters and their present struggles, between their thoughts and what they’re feeling. You just have to follow along. About a third into the novel, I was starting to get a hang of the style of storytelling and the more coherent memories were interesting enough, the way that Franchesco navigates through Ferrara court and society, looking for work, continuing to practise his art. George’s story from the present was also interesting in how she comes to terms with her mother’s death and the notions of life and death and the meaning of existing.
Having said that, I don’t know where all the critics are coming from, raving about the writing and how clever the novel was; I didn’t find the writing especially spectacular or vivid or gripping. There were maybe a few choice lines that were compelling but otherwise I was honestly left scratching my head about this novel. The novel I suppose reinforced the notion that stream of consciousness and whatever they’re calling the postmodern novel are just not my thing; I seem to prefer some structure to my stories, whether it be the structure of the storytelling or just the sentence structure. I suppose that sort of style adds to particular stories, but I didn’t feel like it added anything to my understanding of the story, nor did it help me connect with the characters or the ideas the story was trying to convey.
I’m glad I finally checked out How to be Both but I can’t say I’m absolutely blown away by the storytelling or even the style. By the last quarter of the novel, I found myself actually wondering what it is I was supposed to get out of this novel. Notions of art and grief and life didn’t quite connect with me as much as I wanted it to, especially as they are themes that I great enjoy reading and thinking about in my books. But yeah, How to Be Both ultimately just wasn’t for me.