How To Be Both

716VZB4F7qL._SL1500_ How to be both
Ali Smith
Published December 2, 2014
372 pages (hardcover)

Pick up Ali Smith’s latest award-winning novel, and you have a choice: you can begin reading at the beginning (Part One) . . . or you can start the book about halfway through (in my version, that was page 187, which is also Part One).

The book was actually published two different ways. In one version, the story of a teenage girl, George, who is dealing with her mother’s recent death, comes first, followed by the story of a fifteenth-century Italian fresco painter (Francescho del Cossa). In the other version, the two stories are flip flopped.

My version starts with the teenage girl, George (short for Georgia). In the present, George is living with her dad and little brother, Henry, and they are all dealing in their own ways with the devastating grief of George’s mother’s death. George’s story often flashes back to memories of times when her mother was still alive. One memory George revisits frequently is a spontaneous trip George, Henry, and their mom took to Italy to see Francescho’s frescoes at the Palazzo Schifanoia. George’s mom read about and saw some reproductions of the frescoes in a magazine. She was so moved that she decided to pull the kids from school, so they could go see them in person immediately. She was spontaneous, passionate, and creative . . . an excellent counter-balance to her George’s more staid, rigid, rule-following personality.

George’s story is straight-forward, told like a “normal” first-person novel. Francescho’s part, in contrast, plays with syntax, grammar, and punctuation. It begins and ends in free verse:

Ho this is a mighty twisting thing fast as a

fish being pulled by its mouth on a hook

if a fish could be fished through a

6 foot thick wall made of bricks or an

arrow if an arrow could fly in a lesirely

   curl like the coil of a snail or a

star with a tail if the star was shot

upwards past maggots and worms and

the bones and the rockwork as fast

   coming up as the fast coming down

of the horses in the story of

the chariot of the sun when the

bold boy drove them though

his father told him not to and

he did anyway and couldn’t hold them 

Francescho is a ghost, who emerges from a painting that George goes to see regularly after her mother’s death. The ghost can see George and all things in the present (some of which, like cell phones, are confusing), but is invisible. We learn of Francescho’s strange and interesting history (in the 15th century): family, friends, lovers, painting.

Despite their differences in style and voice, the two parts explore very similar themes and issues: the power of art (specifically, of course, Francescho’s), gender, sex and death.

Rating: 3/5

I liked Francescho as a character a lot, but I found that section very hard to read. Perhaps I’m just lazy, but I don’t want to have to work so hard to read a book. Thank God the free verse only lasts a few pages . . . but the weird syntax and grammar remain for the entire section. For me, that was incredibly grating.

On the flip side, George isn’t quite as likeable. She’s a troubled teen. And let’s be honest: it’s hard to sympathize with troubled teens. That said, her section is extremely well written and very readable.

The idea that this book has been published in two different formats is kind of fun. That’s an interesting and novel idea, and I think it is, in large part, why this book has gotten so much hype. Unfortunately, the structure goes beyond the realm of simply creative and complex . . . to straight-up gimmicky. It’s unfortunate, actually, because the idea behind the connected stories is a good one. The execution is just a little over-the-top for my taste. 

I am fortunate that my version of the book began with George’s story. The two stories are connected by Francescho’s art, obviously, but this connection is much clearer if you read George’s story first; it would be a bit bizarre and a little tougher to puzzle out if you read Francescho’s story first. I would have been completely lost (at least for a while) had I started with Francescho’s story, and a random ghost emerged from a random painting and watched over a random girl. PRO TIP: If you read the book, regardless of the version you stumble upon, I suggest you start with George’s Part One, rather than Francescho’s.

The hype:

  • Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize
  • Winner of the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize
  • Winner of the 2014 Costa Novel Award
  • An NPR Best Book of the Year

Who should read it: Fans of 15th century Italian frescos; people who enjoy creative (gimmicky) structure and aren’t bothered by non-traditional punctuation, grammar, and syntax.

Want to read along with me? A review of this book is coming soon:

  •  A Spool of Blue Threadby Anne Tyler (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for February 2015; the #1 LibraryReads List selection for February 2015; an Indie Next List pick for February 2015)

5 thoughts on “How To Be Both

  1. “Non-traditional punctuation, grammar, and syntax” only leads to my ranting about The Elements of Style and the Oxford comma.

    • This is going to sound like hyperbole, but I assure you it’s not: if I were to estimate, I would guess that there were about 1,000 bizarrely used colons in Francescho’s section. I almost quit reading the book ten pages into that section. But, by that point, I felt like I was pot-committed, so I persevered. The struggle was REAL.

  2. I’m afraid I’d rather have traditional grammar over quirky structure any day…

  3. Pingback: I Know What You Should Read | The Memory Painter

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