‘[…] this place is full of people who have eyes and choose to see nothing’.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith, Pg.43
Based on my enjoyment of one of Ali Smith’s earlier novels, The Accidental – which I read in my late teens – and inspired by a talk I witnessed last year, by Smith herself (before I departed for Hong Kong), I picked up her latest book with no prior knowledge of the acclaim it was receiving before it was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. The title, itself, was intriguing enough to catch my attention; I instantly imagined a crossing of gender binaries and was not surprised to see this theme interweave throughout the story. However, How to Be Both is about so much more than this. It not only explores how a person can be both male and female, past or present; but it also explores how the novel form can be read both ways. There is not just one edition of Ali Smith’s latest book, but two. Made up of two parts that are exactly the same, word for word, one edition will begin with the tale of Francesco del Cossa – a brilliant fresco painter from fifteenth-century Italy, of which not much is known – whilst the other edition will begin with George – a present-day teenage girl who has recently lost her mother.
Left to chance, I happened to pick up the edition of How to Be Both which started with the narrative of Francesco del Cossa (aka, Francesca). Having attempted to read the novel a couple of times, I was initially struck by the opening passage which didn’t look very conventional. Sentences are stretched and shortened and cut off in the middle of thought to create a zig-zag shape across the page. It took me a couple of attempts to make it past the first few pages, but I think that had more to do with the fact that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to decipher the confusion. Once I had made up my mind not to fully undertand everything, I quickly settled into the novel where Ali Smith’s reimagining of this little-known artist’s past was vividly depicted and brought to life.
‘[…] many things get forgiven in the course of a life: nothing is finished or unchangeable except death and even death will bend a little if what you tell of it is told right’.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith, Pg.95