Ali Smith’s new novel, How To Be Both, explores the lives of two characters: a 21st century teenage girl struggling to deal with the loss of her mother, and a 15th century Italian painter narrating posthumously.
Throughout the novel, parallels are drawn between the lives of the two characters and their similarities are accentuated throughout the beautiful and compelling narrative. It is Ali Smith’s second novel to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
How To Be Both is beautifully written, in language that can only be described as poetic. Both characters, Georgia and Francesco, are relatable and their stories grip you from the very beginning. The combination of Georgia’s grief and the ordinary teenage crises she has to deal with at the same time creates a character with almost child-like charm, but with a deep emotional journey that sucks the reader in.
Francesco’s narrative paints the picture of a beautiful 15th century world and the romantic relationships within it. Both narratives leave you wanting more, wishing that you could stay with the characters and learn what will become of them both.
Both halves of the book deal, very subtly, with issues of gender and sexuality. The novel gradually makes the reader sympathetic with the characters’ situations without overtly shoving any political agenda down the reader’s throat. The parallels drawn between the two characters serve to emphasise both the similarities and differences between 15th century and 21st century society. It is a story of love and identity that draws attention to societal issues that have existed throughout history.
Everything about this book seems to be designed to make sure the reader is paying attention. From the absence of speech marks and constant jumps in chronology, to the sudden and unsettling switch of narration, to the stream of consciousness of a deceased fifteenth century painter halfway through, the novel assures that the reader must be fully focused to understand the story.
However, the shortage of page breaks and chapters makes it very difficult for anyone with a busy life to keep track. For most people it would be difficult to the find time to read the 80 page chapters in one sitting.
Yet, if you do not, you find yourself picking up the book in the middle of a flashback or internal monologue and struggling to remember how it fits in with what you read last time.
Furthermore, Francesco, the 15th century painter narrating, one assumes, from some ghostly plain while watching Georgia live her life, talks in a way that one would expect from a modern speaker rather than one that has been dead for 600 years. Of course, Ali Smith could not have written in 15th century Italian but a little more authenticity might have been welcome.
However, if you get past the fact that your narrator is dead and speaking in a very modern way, Francesco’s narrative is one of the most beautiful and captivating reads around. Georgia’s narrative is almost as beautiful and tells a story that it would be hard not to become emotionally invested in.
Overall, despite the overly long chapters and the occasionally confusing narration, How To Be Both is a gorgeous read that should be highly recommended, if only to those with a lot of spare time on their hands.