How to be both is a novel all about art’s versatility. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real – and all life’s givens get given a second chance.
About the Author
Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962 and lives in Cambridge. She is the author of Artful, There but for the, Free Love, Like, Hotel World, Other Stories and Other Stories, The Whole Story and Other Stories, The Accidental, Girl Meets Boy and The First Person and Other Stories.
Smith’s inventive use of language and structure transform expectations for the reader as well as the characters as the novel travels between centuries to explore contemporary perceptions and medieval subterfuge, connected by the power of art.
Two stories – not intertwined or overlapping, but reflecting and gazing upon one another – about the mysteries of really knowing anyone, even oneself.
“Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen” is the often tweeted message from George’s mysterious mother just before her death. This simplistic tweet sums up the carefully structured novel with two unique stories: a 15th-century Italian artist’s life and a modern teen, George, whose mother has a connection to the Renaissance artist. Smith ignores the safety of a linear arrangement to allow the reader to experiment with the story order; either can be read first. It takes a well grounded author to allow for experimental order and Smith’s story, characters, intricacies of conflict, are so well formed that the order question becomes almost insignificant. Every page, every choice made by Smith serves as a connective tissue to other literary styles and periods.
Ali Smith’s fiction continues to grow in stature over the years. Her ability to shift shape, move effortlessly between epochs, subjects and genders ensures that as a literary artist she keeps us on our toes. Unpredictable, empathetic, she never fails to come up with anything less than original, and How to be both is a novel in the best modernist tradition, that bends the rules.