Ali Smith’s How to be Both is all about duality. Divided into two segments, which alternate randomly depending on which version of the book you happen to buy, How to be Both follows two interweaving narratives that move across time and space, gender and people in their quest to answer the eternal question: what does it mean to create, and in turn be created by, art?
Smith follows the story of George, a girl in contemporary Cambridge, as she struggles with the recent death of her mother, her shifting sexual identity, and her newfound obsession with her mother’s favourite painter, Francesco del Cossa. The alternate segment is structured around the fictionalised thoughts and memories of the painter Francesco himself – or, as the reader comes to discover, herself – as she is trapped, ghostlike, in George’s modern world. Whether Francesco is alive; a spirit conjured up by George’s infatuation with her work; or a mere figment of George’s imagination is unclear. Francesco believes herself to be living in purgatory, trapped in a “state of troubling memory”. In this dreamlike world, reality and causality are in a constant state of flux, obscured by memory and fantasy like the walls that Francesco decorates beneath her layers of paint.
As George states as she admires Francesco’s frescoes in Italy, “art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen”. This is indeed the crux of the entire book. It floats, untethered to reality; merely a series of reflections and memories conjured by art. In a superb twist, the reader is forced to realise that they too have come under art’s spell. The very act of reading this novel has caused them to think, to react – it has made something happen.
How to be Both has been long listed for the Man Booker Prize and was awarded the Costa Book Award in the category of fiction this January.