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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Review: 'How to be Both'

How to be Both
By Ali Smith
Literary fiction
December 2014
ISBN: 978-0375424106

A young girl on the cusp of womanhood, struggling to continue after the sudden loss of her mother, and a long-dead Renaissance painter known only to history through a letter demanding more pay, are the catalysts to consider what is and what was, what is art, what is underneath and what remains, in Ali Smith's How to be Both.

The novel, which was listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the Costa, was designed to not be linear, but to be layered. Some editions begin with Georgie, grieving for her talented, daring mother in present-day London. The other editions begin with the story of Francesco, child of a bricklayer whose mother also excelled at storytelling.

The last trip Georgie took with her mother and younger brother (while the always-distant dad stayed home for work) was to view Francesco's frescoes in Italy. Past and present, present and future, layers of what exists and what can be seen and what stays hidden are the essence of the novel. Georgie remembers events that once happened and has to keep changing the tense, from says to said, life to not life, from living to dead.

The word play, the tropes of tense, of layers, of hiding in plain sight or there being more just underneath the surface, serve to showcase "oh!" moments. Georgie, for example, is originally called George in the story but is a girl who identifies as a girl and does not like the fact she was named for a character in an old film (1966's Georgy Girl). Who another character is in other times and forms is a puzzle; although, like any well-designed painting that tells its story in allegory form, the clues are hiding in plain sight.

Although it is noted early in Georgie's section that "People like things not to be too meaningful", Smith knows better. Georgie becomes obsessed with a video of a young girl being used sexually and watches it over and over and over again. The girl, she decides, is everywhere, a representation of harm being done over and over again. To Georgie, watching it is paying tribute to the fact it has happened but, for someone who has not seen it, the act has not happened because that person doesn't know the act exists. It happens for the first time for that person when that person does see it.

In Italy with her mother, studying the frescoed walls that Francesco painted centuries earlier, it is noted the part of the work shows "how ordinary cruelty really is". The work was hidden for years under whitewash, meaning it did not exist for the people who knew about the room but did not know what was under the whitewash. That bothers George's younger brother enormously: "Could the room you were actually in get -- lost?"

Georgie does not want her mother to be forgotten because she is no longer there, just as the frescoes were forgotten because they were no longer seen. And the painter has been completely forgotten except for a letter in which more money is asked of the patron because of it is deserved (a letter which really does exist).

On that Italian trip, Georgie's mother sets these ideas into her head:
Do things just go away? her mother says. Do things that happened not exist, or stop existing, just because we can't see them happening in front of us? They do when they're over, George says. And what about the things we watch happening ... "

Well, what about them? Who sees them and how they see them and what the viewers bring to what they see to combine that knowledge with what is in front of them, well, it's never the same, is it?

What was there and what is there are part of something else Georgie's mother did: She was part of a group called the Subverts who delighted in subliminal and unexpected messages, such as "a box that would flash up on a politics page and it would have a picture in it or some stanzas of a poem, stuff like that".

Georgie's mother also tells her that "nothing's not connected" and therein lies the harsh truth and glorious beauty in Smith's novel. The struggle, as usual, is for us to take E.M. Forster's advice: "Only connect" even if it all seems a swirl at times and the way the pieces fall together doesn't seem at all clear.

Francesco's mother creates a different spin on the connections among all things. To her, anything created creates a ring, a ripple, just as a pebble dropped in water creates its rings. To that wife of a Renaissance bricklayer, the ring encompasses everything. And if everything is encompassed, it is contained together. It is connected.

And so it is in this novel. Whether one reads Georgie's story first or Francesco's, parts of the painter's story are prelude to Georgie's and parts of it reverberate in the present.

In the spirit of Smith's novel, it does not matter which part one reads first. Because they fit together.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted by permission


  1. I've not read anything by Ali Smith, but i think I may start with this one. I've just heard so much good stuff about it. Sounds complex and intriguing. Thanks for the review.

  2. Thank you for reading! The novel was complex and rewarding for me, and I hope you have that same good experience.