How to be both – Ali Smith

Depending which version of the book you have in front of you, How to be both either begins with George in the car with her recently deceased mother discussing a moral conundrum or it begins with a 550 year old painter returning (sort of) to see his painting in an art gallery and to tell us about his life. As my copy begins with George, I’m going to start there.

It’s New Year’s Eve. George, a teenager, is remembering a conversation between her and her mother the previous May. They were in the car when George’s mother tells her to consider a moral conundrum, one that begins with George imagining she is an artist.

This will be the first year her mother hasn’t been alive since the year her mother was born. This is so obvious that it is stupid even to think about it and yet so terrible that you can’t not think about it. Both at once.

George is spending the beginning of the New Year looking up the lyrics to Let’s Twist Again. She’s decided she’s going to begin the remaining days of the holidays dancing to a song like her mother used to. This happens while George recalls the conversation she had with her mother about being an artist.

Okay, I’m imagining, George in the passenger seat last May in Italy says at exactly the same time as George at home in England the following January stares at the meaninglessness of the words of an old song. Outside the car window Italy unfurls round and over them so hot and yellow it looks like it’s been sandblasted.

The conundrum is whether an artist working on a project with other artists, all of whom are being paid the same, deserves more money because they believe their work is worth more than the others.

Smith uses this beginning in two ways; it serves as an introduction to George and her mother, particularly their relationship with each other, and it links to a key element of the other story, although this doesn’t become obvious until some way into the other section.

George’s section goes on to tell the story of her family life, both before and after her mother’s death. It focuses on George, particularly on school where she has counselling sessions Mrs Rock and becomes close friends with Helena Fisker.

The other section begins with a fifteenth century, Italian artist, Francescho del Cossa returning to consciousness and finding himself standing behind a boy looking at a painting.

A boy in front of a painting.

Good : I like a good back : the best thing about a turned back is the face you can’t see stays a secret : hey : you : can’t hear me? Can’t hear? No? My chin on your shoulder right next to your ear and you still can’t hear, ha well, old argument about eye or ear being mightier all goes to show it’s neither here no there when you’re neither here nor there so call me Cosmo call me Lorenzo call me Ercole call me unknown painter of the school of whatever you like I forgive you I don’t care – don’t have to care – good – somebody else can care…

Francescho tells the story of his youth, living with his parents – his father a bricklayer – and discovering he had a talent for art. He goes on to talk about his apprenticeship and how he came to create the painting which survived him. Throughout this, he follows George from the first section as her story continues.

There are many impressive things about this novel: it’s tightly structured with reference to its themes; the two parts of the book interweave and reference each other throughout; there’s some beautiful wordplay, particularly in the George section.

Smith considers what is art and what is its value throughout the book. George’s mother was one of the ‘Subvert interventionists’. A movement who used early pop-up technology to make ‘a random visual or a piece of information’ appear on web pages. Her mother’s job was ‘to subvert political things with art things’ and vice-versa. One of her mother’s most retweeted Subverts is:

Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.

This links to Francescho’s idea that ‘A picture is most times just picture : but sometimes a picture is more…’. He talks about the ways in which paintings go beyond the frame and what occurs then:

Cause then it does 2 opposing things at once.
The one is, it lets the world be seen and understood.
The other is, it unchains the eye and the lives of those who see it and gives them a moment of freedom, from its world and from their world both.

This idea of being ‘both’/two things at once runs through the book too. The idea that someone can be both alive and dead, watched and the watcher, male and female. It’s about things moving on while continuing to reference the past. One of the joys of the book, is spotting the links – of which there are many – between the novel’s two sections.

I do have one criticism, however, and that’s that the Francescho section of the novel doesn’t seem to be as strong to me as the George section. There’s two reasons for this: firstly, the George section could stand on its own and still make sense but I don’t think the Francescho section could; this is mostly due to the points where it intersects with George’s story – they occur after the reader leaves George’s story and are too vague to make sense without an understanding of her situation. Secondly, the wordplay of George’s section – mostly instigated by George being pedantic over her mother’s grammar – is largely absent from the Francescho section which was a shame, as it’s very enjoyable to read. There is a caveat to this in that, so far, I’ve only read the novel starting with George’s story so it will be interesting to see if I change my mind once I’ve reread it the other way around.

How to be both is a smart, playful novel that considers its themes in great depth while being an absolute joy to read.

16 thoughts on “How to be both – Ali Smith

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  2. I read How to be both very recently (review coming soon) and although I read Francescho’s story first, I agree that George’s story was stronger and more inventive. It’s definitely a book I would consider rereading starting with George next time to see how it compares. I would like to see it on the Baileys shortlist tomorrow – hope the shadowing is going well!


  3. Great review, though Francescho was a girl (you refer as ‘he’ thoughout) – another strand on the ‘how to be both’ being Francescho’s journey as ‘both’ girl and boy. It’s a fabulous book, very clever. I’d be sad if it didn’t make the shortlist.


    • I do because the revelation of the character’s gender comes later so could be considered a spoiler. Same as who the boy is Francescho sees looking at the picture when he returns to consciousness. It ties so nicely into a strand in the George half that I think has extra resonance if you don’t know about Francescho’s gender on first reading. There’s also the argument (sorry, I’m looking at representations of gender for my PhD so I have lots to say on this) that Francescho chooses to represent as a boy, so it would be ‘correct’ to refer to the character as ‘he’. I do refer to the different genders in my round-up of the ‘boths’ but again chose to be ambiguous about it to leave the discovery to the reader.


  4. I read it Franschesco first ….I think that it is a slower start that way round although I had heard Ali Smith reading the opening section which really did help in bringing that to life .
    If ( when!) it’s s/l I will reread it the other way round . It’s the sort of book I would want to reread anyway as I think I prob missed a lot the first time round ….esp how F and Gs stories intersect .

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I enjoyed your review, Naomi. The duality theme is very interesting, isn’t it? I loved the various ways Ali Smith used this idea throughout the novel.

    Oddly enough, even though my copy started with George’s story, I was utterly captivated by Francescho’s voice (both sections were hugely enjoyable, though). I hope to see this novel on the shortlists – your shadow list and the official one. 🙂


  6. I read it with the George section first as well, but don’t remember thinking the Francescho narrative as lacking in terms of interest or vividness or anything. I plan to re-read the other way around too, as I am keen to see what else can be gleaned in terms of the story and crossover points. At times I was reminded of a mirror, with the wall imagery as the line in the middle, with reflections on either side. A brilliant book, my equal favourite from last year (the other was Michel Faber’s Book of Strange New Things).


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